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Japan's millennial workers find strength in low numbers

Sweets are never out of reach at the headquarters of package design company Esspride.

TOKYO -- For decades, Japan's office workers have endured overcrowded trains, subordination to senior colleagues and pay unrelated to performance. Workplaces around the country tend to share a drab formula: white walls, gray carpeting and no-frills desks.

     All of that may be about to change. Japanese companies are increasingly catering to the preferences of a younger set known as Generation Y, or millennials. Born between 1983 and 1995, according to some definitions, these workers wield more leverage than their predecessors for a simple reason: They are relatively scarce in Japan.

     Generation Y accounts for about 21% of the current world population, and is projected to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Yet today, only 14% of Japan's aging populace can be categorized as millennials.

     As a result, employers must compete to recruit and retain these young workers, who some also refer to as the "Me Me Me generation." The first step to winning them over is offering an attractive, inspiring environment.

Chips and heartthrobs

Marina Suzuki, a product development manager at design company Esspride, has a few rules written on the back of her business card, including, "I will call for everyone to have sweets at 3 p.m." and "In sickness and in health, I will set aside time for sweets."

     Her office in Tokyo's Sendagaya district is reminiscent of the candy house in the German fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." Sweets can be found in just about every corner of Esspride's office -- cookies, puddings, pastries and candies. Employees can get a dose of sugar anytime.

     The company specializes in package design. It helps small and midsize confectionery makers across Japan to come up with innovative packages that stand out on store shelves. "Customers will pick up a product if they are struck by the creativity," said Seiichi Nishikawa, Esspride's president.

     Consider Ikemen, or handsome man, potato chips. Open the bag and you will find a card, much like a baseball card, with a picture of a good-looking fellow and some information about him. The men featured on the cards are not famous -- they are regular office workers at random companies. The list of details includes the man's name, age, birthday, blood type, height, weight, nickname, dream, employer, favorite sweets and preferred type of woman.

     The guys voluntarily divulge information that goes far beyond what was stolen from the Japan Pension Service recently. 

     "We take a bag of ordinary chips and make it fun," Nishikawa said. To keep such ideas flowing, Esspride holds what it calls "cock-a-doodle-doo meetings" each morning at 8:30 a.m. In exchange for free breakfast, workers come in half an hour early to brainstorm about the company, the environment or the future of the world. Transcripts of these daily discussions are posted on the company's Facebook page.

PS Solutions offers employees workspaces like this one, where they can relax and dream up the next big thing.

Unchained from desks

For employees at PS Solutions, a software company related to mobile phone carrier SoftBank, coming to work each day is a new experience. This is partly because nobody has a desk of their own. Upon arrival, employees grab their laptops from their lockers and choose a place to sit.

     "If you want to think on your own, I would suggest you sit by the window, take in the scenery and relax," said Shunji Mori, a director at the company. "If you want to talk with a colleague, sit at a round table. If you're in a group, go to the rectangular table."

     The system rewards early birds, since they get first dibs on the prime spots.

     PS Solutions takes other steps to keep things interesting. A meeting room named Rio de Janeiro is filled with green plants -- some hanging, some standing. Because the room is windowless, the lights are kept on all day for the plants' sake. A gardener comes by twice a week to care for them.

     Another meeting room called San Jose, with a surfboard on the wall, is modeled after the garage where Hewlett-Packard was started.

     Mori is confident that the laid-back atmosphere spurs innovation. The company's latest software, called e-kakashi or e-scarecrow, aids farm management.

     Foreign companies in Japan are also upping the fun factor. Bank of America Merrill Lynch's office in Tokyo's Nihombashi area has a full-scale gym, run by fitness facility operator Tipness. "We wanted a really cool gym," said Tsukasa Noda, senior vice president of marketing and corporate affairs. "We hope it helps in recruitment and retention."

Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Tokyo office has a full-scale gym.

     Morrison Foerster, the largest foreign law firm in Tokyo, holds yoga classes at its office overlooking Tokyo Station.

The future is theirs

The hip office trend can be traced back to Silicon Valley tech companies. Googleplex, the California headquarters of Google, is famous for its giant rubber balls, free laundry machines and multiple sand volleyball courts.

     In March, Facebook unveiled a 40,000-sq.-meter office that is basically an enormous single room. The place can accommodate 2,800 workers.

     Corporate Japan tends to be resistant to breaking from tradition. Yet many companies are realizing that they must, in order to win over those crucial millennials. 

     According to "Gen Y and the World of Work," a comprehensive report by global recruitment expert Hays, this generation will become the driving force for the global economy as baby boomers and Generation Xers retire. Generation Y is said to be highly creative, having dealt with computers and mobile devices throughout their lifetime. They have access to more information than any generation in history, but they also have a reputation for being entitled, narcissistic and unrealistic.

     "In this global age, companies in Japan, domestic and foreign, are looking for bilingual, bicultural and globally capable people who can understand clients and build relationships," observed Jonathan Sampson, managing director for Hays in Japan. 

     Finding and maximizing such talent is no small challenge for Japanese businesses, which face increasingly stiff international competition. There are only 17.2 million Generation Y workers in Japan. In China, there are 286 million.

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