In Japan, Flexible work in the spotlight as one of the more varied working formats
as workstyle reforms gain in importance, and the Work-Life Balance improves.
We interviewed three Sony hardware design engineers on the status of flexible
working and their impressions in areas where it is thought to be rather difficult --
CAD (computer-aided design tools) and operations involving the handling of physical items.
Konishi: I use the flexible working scheme several times a month for telecommuting from home and mobile working. I provide nursing care for my mother, but I also use it to create time for keeping in touch with my family, such as participating in events with my child. In combination with using my paid child-rearing leave, I also take part in most of the primary school's parents' day events three times a year. It's really good to be able to confirm my child's growth and educational environment for myself. Very few fathers come to the parents' day events, but I believe using this scheme will make it easier for fathers to participate.
Matsuhashi: I also use the flexible working scheme. I have not yet used it to take part in parents' days like Konishi-san, but I use it to take my child to and from nursery school because my wife also works and sometimes goes on business trips. When I'm in the office, I often just idle my time away after eating a packed lunch at my desk, but on flexible work days, I use my time more efficiently, washing dishes or hanging out the washing that I did earlier in the morning. I may take advantage of the scheme a little more often because it enables me to use my time far more flexibly and use my own time more freely.
Nagase: Like Matsuhashi-san, I use the scheme fairly regularly. My hobby is dancing, and most of the people I dance with are students and the like, not working adults. Since it's natural to practice on weekdays, my only choices before I started using the flexible working scheme were to use up my paid leave to take part in two hours' practice, or simply give up. If I use the flexible working scheme, I can participate in weekday practices. It's so convenient I want to use it more proactively.
Konishi: I've not used the flexible working system for my hobbies yet. I normally practice taekwondo, go-karting and survival games on weekends or no-overtime workdays, but since such hobbies may take a full day, flextime working is not really ideal. Since weekday bookings are always easier and cheaper, weekdays are really ideal...
Nagase:Depending on your hobbies, it's pretty difficult... If possible, I go to yoga classes close to my house for a short time. Since the local yoga studio offers many lessons on weekdays, I can easily go along in the early evening on flexible workdays.
Matsuhashi: I've not used the scheme for hobbies yet, either, but would like to. Last weekend, I tried my hobby -- horse riding -- before work, which meant leaving the house at 05:30, riding for around two hours, and getting home before 09:00. I think this could work. My muscles still ache, but the tiredness is refreshing because it is completely different from the tiredness I get from commuting. Afterwards, I felt that this should enable me to do even better work than usual. The flexible working scheme also set me thinking about how I use time. I'm developing the urge to do various things because I feel I can regain lost time.
Konishi: Once you have more leeway for using your time, it also broadens the scope of what you yourself can do. I'm happy that it should enable me to do things I haven't been able to do in the house, or for my family. Since I live far from the office, taking flexible work time is on a full-day unit basis. If I lived closer and could use flextime on an hourly unit basis, I wonder whether I would be able to use time more effectively... If there was a business facility close to my home, perhaps I could use that as a satellite office.
Matsuhashi: It takes me three hours a day to commute to and from my office. Using the flexible work scheme enables me to use that time in full for housework and taking my child to and from the nursery school. Another advantage is that it eliminates the psychological pressure of commuting. It's great to eliminate the stress of wondering whether I'll be late for work...
Nagase: While it only takes me 40 minutes one-way to and from the office, I still feel better if I don't have to commute. That feeling must be even greater for both of you. On flextime workdays, I can start work 15 minutes after waking up. I get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and am ready to go in 15 minutes! That's fast!
Konishi: Use of the flexible working scheme is increasing throughout Sony, but the rate of usage among employees of the Development Division is still relatively low compared with other workplaces. I've heard that employees in planning and clerical work often use it, but I believe they can do much of their work using note PCs as their tools. Since we are working on the design of digital camera assemblies, we have to be able to see the physical components and use CAD, neither of which is possible at home. Moreover, groups of several people work on designing a single digital camera, so it is often more efficient to discuss matters on the spot when putting together the components that we each work on individually.
Matsuhashi: For that very reason, task management is vitally important when adopting flexible work time. The secret is to separate work that can only be done in the company from work that can be done at home, and to uncouple those segments of work that can be done at home from work that normally can only be done at the company. Thought processes like this are extremely important, and infuse our daily work with a vitality all its own. They change our attitudes towards work, and are effective in acquiring flexible work time on a planned and continuous basis.
Konishi: If schedules and tasks can be managed as Matsuhashi-san describes, it should be possible to figure out ways of using flexible working even for development work. There is plenty of work that can be done at home around once a month, including analyses using Excel and preparing materials.
Nagase: That's true. I can also accomplish a great deal of that sort of work on flexible workdays, which are ideally suited to individual work. I think it is a great scheme because I can really concentrate without other departmental colleagues speaking to me, making it highly efficient and enabling me to complete a lot of work much faster.
Matsuhashi: On the other hand, the disadvantage is that I cannot handle physical items, as Konishi-san said earlier. I've had the irritating experience where I took work home with me because I did not think I would need to look at physical objects, only to find that I could not complete the work because once I started I found I had to check on the items themselves. I think there is room for solutions, although the problem of not being able to use network environments or CAD remains, but I am not aware of any other disadvantages.
Konishi: I do my work in the living room, so I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate once my child gets home in the evening. I worry about what staffers in my department think when I'm on the phone to them and my child is being noisy in the background. When I'm in the company, however, I spend a lot of time in meeting rooms, and it is difficult for people to get hold of me when they need to discuss things. It is actually easier for staffers to reach me on flexible workdays because they can quickly contact me using online communications tools.
Matsuhashi:You can contact people fast, so it's easier to talk to them.
Nagase: Using online communications to speak to two or three people is convenient, but there are problems participating in larger meetings. The other day, I took part online in a meeting where everyone but me was physically present. I was able to discuss things during conversations, but got the timing wrong for making comments, and was unable to keep up with the discussion.
Konishi: Actually, when I took part online in a meeting one time I was unable to read the general mood in the gathering. You tend to get slightly behind the conversation online, and there are times when you end up not knowing who you're talking to. Participating in meetings online on flexible workdays is actually rather difficult. That said, I think that using online meetings will get easier as communications tools evolve, the number of online participants increases, and meeting management procedures improve.
Matsuhashi: I believe the necessary tools will evolve once online meetings become more common. Handling meetings should also become smoother when meetings are conducted on the premise that some participants are online.
Konishi: One of the rules of flexible workdays is to notify the office when you start and finish work. Another condition is to maintain constant contact, requiring us to send emails when we stop work for lunch, etc. Be that as it may, management is unable to monitor you when you are working away from the office, so if anything they may worry that employees are overworking or under strain. Management has no way of knowing if employees continue working after reporting that they have finished for the day. Before flexible working started, some people worried that, if anything, employees would become lazy or inefficient. Perhaps unexpectedly, there have actually been no problems in that area, and I get the impression that management today is becoming increasingly positive towards the scheme.
Matsuhashi: I actually feel pressure to deliver output that I can be proud of, but I also believe that plenty of such pressure leads to my producing better results.
Konishi: The company provides flexible working because it wants its employees to work efficiently. I am really happy that, as Nagase-san said earlier, being able to concentrate on one's work without interruptions from colleagues is greatly welcomed by management because it enables employees to deliver better results. I believe this is because everyone understands the meaning of flexible working correctly and uses the scheme properly.
Nagase: I became aware of the advantages of flexible working the first time I tried it. I think a surprising number of people working in development have likely never tried flexible working because they do not think they need it. When they consider it for the first time, they may feel there are too many hurdles to overcome. But once they try it, I think they will understand the benefits and convenience of flexible working, making it easier to do it again. For this reason, I would like to see everyone adopt a more relaxed attitude towards it.
Matsuhashi: In my view, people should try flexible working several times before deciding whether they should or should not use it, or whether it suits them or not. Using it just once or twice is not enough to judge whether it is inefficient or doesn't suit you. I suspect there may also be emotional reasons for not using the flexible work scheme. Once you get a sense of security from working when you are in the company, it may well be difficult to feel you are working efficiently at home, away from the company. To change this mindset, it is essential to continue taking flexible worktime and using your ingenuity.
Konishi: Hearing what Matsuhashi-san had to say made me suspect that people who have never tried flexible working do not understand what sort of work they should do at such times. I believe that such people would find it easier if they approached working at home as if they are on a business trip. When you go on a business trip, you know there is work you cannot do at your destination, but I think you will be able to work efficiently if you make systematic preparations and use flexible working to accomplish work that you have planned in advance. I'd like to see such people approach flexible worktime as if they are going on a one-day business trip.
Since flexible working serves as a means of broadening your lifestyle and making it richer, I think it will lead to a more expansive workstyle if you can take a more relaxed approach to using it.