For a country infamous for its long working hours and deeply entrenched work ethic, Japan lags surprisingly far behind other leading economies when it comes to innovative workplace design. But now a new generation of young Japanese office workers is rebelling against drab work spaces.
Information technology graduate Hideki Ishihara was depressed at the thought of working in a traditional office environment.
'I knew I couldn't do it. It would be worse than not having a job,' he says. He went on to endure six months of unemployment and questioning from his mystified family before finding work in a start-up decorated with simple but stylish Muji furniture.
Ishihara's expectations stand in stark contrast to those of his parents' generation. 'Remember, cities like Tokyo were rebuilt very quickly and cheaply after the war with a focus on economics, not aesthetics,' says Tokyo-based architect Benjamin Warner.
'The Japanese work ethic is frugal, so interior design issues are not considered as important as functional aspects.
Psychologist Elizabeth Gillies believes the cultural concept of 'insider and outsider' means that if image is important to a business, 'the focus will be on the building or address as the external face, while inside the building is considered different.'
Economics play a critical role, says leading architect Jun Mitsui. 'Offices in Japan must be reinstated to their original condition after a lease ends. Most change as little as possible because they have to pay a considerable amount to put it all back. Offices are decorated to a basic level prior to rental, so there is little incentive to do anything extra.'
But Japan can no longer afford to ignore the international trend towards more comfortable and pleasant office environments. Extensive research shows significant economic and social benefits derive from a well designed workplace.
There is also a growing expectation of a better quality environment. In 2006, Japanese internet research company Goo Research interviewed 2,215 members of its business monitoring community about how office design affected communication or motivation. The group found 71.8 per cent believed that functional design changes have a positive impact on employee motivation, while 62.6 per cent felt it had a direct impact on employee creativity.
There is also evidence to show that severe health problems such as depression, stress and even suicide rates are linked to the working environment.
'Introducing good design is not just about bright colours and designer furniture,' says architect Mark Dytham of Tokyo design duo Klein-Dytham Architecture. 'Obviously the design must incorporate functional aspects, but for truly creative spaces it is about developing an idea with a twist to it. But that fun element must work in a sophisticated way with other aspects to create the best effect.'
Dytham points to advertising agency TBWA\Hatuhodo as a good example of how design creates a new kind of energy. 'The company wanted a creative environment for their new offices located in a very unusual setting - an old bowling alley. We used their advertising philosophy of disruption and connections in the design to stimulate communication and new ideas,' he says. 'We retained the feel of the old bowling lanes and introduced interesting 'shelters' within the main space. People use them to just spread out their things and relax.'
It is not just artistic businesses that benefit from creative workspaces, says Mitsui. 'One of Japan's largest legal firms, Nishimura & Partners, wanted an innovative interior that reflected their international philosophy. Every one of their conference rooms has a different interior design reflecting different countries and cities. The Japanese and New York-designed rooms are the most popular to host meetings.'
Dytham dismisses the idea that custom-designed offices require a large budget. 'We've worked with almost no budget at all and it is definitely possible to create an interesting environment without considerable expense,' he says, before adding with a laugh, 'although it obviously helps.
'For one Tokyo real estate client we introduced carpets with simple strong lines making a contemporary urban statement. We've even recovered conference room chairs with a Paul Smith pinstripe fabric that everyone comments on,' he says. 'In other projects, it was about thinking imaginatively about the work and space they have. At Danone Japan, we worked with their theme and colours and created a beautiful but functional screen of empty water bottles to make a pure statement.'
'I don't really notice the environment around me when we are creating new ideas,' says one Tokyo advertising account executive. 'But I'm pretty sure if it was badly designed I would notice. I like clean colours and fun places to escape to when we need to break away. One spot has artificial grass and we have our lunch there like a picnic. Some of my best ideas come while chatting to someone completely unrelated to my work.'
No single element appears to take precedence in creating the perfect office, but thinking beyond the functionality and effective use of the space is important. 'Investment in elements such as ergonomic chairs and the right type of desk for your industry is important,' says Ernest Greer, vice-president of workplace futures at Steelcase. 'But it is only when all the parts of design work together that real productivity is achieved. Design needs to be seen as part of competitive advantage.'
Dytham agrees that investing in design makes good business sense. 'Advertising agency Beacon Communications have won work through their interiors because they look like they know what they are doing. The design layout stimulates communication, while different materials and colours give each floor of the company a distinct theme relevant to their particular market,' he says.
'The floor dealing with women's products has a beauty and hair salon, and is decorated in a distinctive pink colour. Their offices receive a huge amount of press and that generates business, which is an obvious value link to creativity. It also makes people feel proud of being part of the organisation.'
Companies that consider reducing office space as a cost-cutting strategy risk 'creating inefficiencies if they simply shrink space and continue with the same workplace paradigm', says Diane Hoskins, executive director at corporate architectural firm Gensler. The firm recently undertook a US-wide study of office workers and reported workplace design plays 'a pivotal role in business performance by supporting the new work modes of a knowledge economy'.
Firms providing more appropriate workplaces report 'higher levels of employee engagement, brand equity and profit, with profit growth up to 14 percentage points greater than those with less effective work environments'.
Mitsui says better communication should be a key objective of good design. 'We recently designed a new office for Fuji Xerox's research and office workers to stimulate communication between the two different parts of the company. Employee interaction is the way creative inspiring ideas develop and these translate into profits. The design therefore focuses on informal interaction, an unusual element in Japan.'
One simple design solution was to create a 2.5-metre corridor space around the perimeter of the office floor space so employees can walk around the whole building. The 100-metre long corridor provides panoramic views of the city and is home to white boards, tables and coffee machines, allowing people to rest and talk to each other, and hopefully come up with innovative ideas. Design comes full circle.