Ten years have passed since Regions was founded in 2008. We’re a company of just thrity people, but already have an abundance of systems, such as “working from home”, “flextime”, and “hourly paid leave”. How did such systems come about, and why are they so fleshed out? In this interview we asked Unno, who represents women in the workplace at Regions, and executive office Watanabe, who has put in a lot of work in designing HR systems, and will be taking a three month break this summer to try and climb K2, about the background behind this.
※Interview Date: 27th December 2017
Business Management Department Management Group Manager
Joined August 2009
The first person to take maternity leave at Regions. Afterwards she experienced her second maternity leave. She is such a strong role model for working as both a female employee and as a mother that there are even female workers who decided to join after being inspired by her.
Executive Officer Head of Tohoku Company
Joined July 2010
His hobby is mountain climbing. He usually spends his days off on the peak of mountains. He puts great importance in putting his all into both his work and private life. Sometimes he even does work at the top of a mountain once he finds a place he can get reception.
Unno： I joined in May 2009 as a part time worker. At the time the CEO Takaoka was still doing everything by himself. He said he needed an office worker, and so I helped out for what was originally supposed to be three days, but I ended but settling down more permanently. I worked for a while, and was asked by Takaoka to become a full-time employee in the August, but right after that I found out that I was pregnant. Half given up I asked “I guess that this means I can’t become an employee”, but surprisingly Takaoka replied with “if you want to stay then just make a system so that you can”. In a company of just two people I became a full time employee and took maternity leave in the fourth month of working there.
Watanabe： At the time it was still only the second year since establishment in a run down office wasn’t it. I’ve even heard that the toilet was Japanese-style with red water running through it.
Unno： I took maternity leave a second time, but by then a total of six women had used the system eight times, and indeed right now two are currently off.
Watanabe： Come to think of it of our thirty total employees eighteen are female, a ratio of 60%.
Unno： Our company doesn’t have cases where people really want to keep working but have no choice but to quit, and we have designed a variety of systems based around making sure that employees can continue working. For example, working from home. A female worker who has been in the Utsunomiya branch for about a year is going to move to Tokyo due to her husband’s job transfer. However, we don’t have a branch office in Tokyo. Normally they would have to reluctantly quit, but we thought “Surely there must be a way… Let’s make a working from home system”. From that the working from home system was born.
Watanabe： We felt that it’s such a waste for a colleague you’ve worked together with to suddenly quit due to a job change. From this other employees became able to do their work from home as well.
Unno： I started as just for staff positions, in particular as a means of rescheduling for working mothers, and from that expanded to the consulting business, which had previously been thought to be difficult due to the nature and contents of the business.
Watanabe： In the case of consultants, when a place you’re out on business to is close to your house, it can be better for you to just return home from there and work from home rather than return to the office. The fact that male employees can also work from home means that they can spend more time with their family.
Unno： There are people who use the work from home system once or twice per week, and sometimes they work from home all day, and other times they work at the office in the morning and go home for the afternoon. It really is used quite flexibly. It’s really help for mothers, as they can use it in line with their child’s situation.
Watanabe： Come to think of it there was someone who used the system because it was the day after they’d had their wisdom teeth removed and their face was all swollen. I guess you really don’t want people seeing you like that.
Unno： I’m changing the discussion a bit but right now we work on a flextime basis, and the total amount of hours worked per month is decided.
Watanabe： You can for example go home early the next day if you worked till late the night before, and so every month you can manage your own working hours depending on the situation of your work.
Unno： Also, due to requests from mother workers, we made it so that if you work at the company for just one hour on a particular day, then you are treated as coming to work. For example in the past there were cases where they’d show up at 8:30, but at 9:30 get a call from the nursery saying that their child had a fever, but when they left they would be treated as being absent from work that day. As a result they had to use their paid leave to combat this issue. But if this happens continually then all their paid leave will be used up, and they’ll eventually have to count as absent from work. There were fears that this might lead to drops in their salary.
Watanabe： Right now in cases like that they are treated as coming to work, so the uncertainty and concerns from earlier have vanished.
Unno： Another system we created at the time was hourly paid leave. You use your paid leave in terms of hours instead of days. For example in situations where a child’s illness prolongs, you can manage your workstyle by, for example, asking your husband to look after the child for an hour and work, working for an hour while the child is napping, and putting the time in between that as paid leave. With this system flextime work is possible, instead of short-time work.
Watanabe： In terms of systems related to workstyle, there are a lot of cases where rather than being proposed by the management class, such as Takaoka, proposals come actively from the employees at the workplace.
Unno： There are also a lot of cases where the management class are absent. Concerns from employees at the workplace are considered at executive meetings.
Watanabe： We thoroughly think through all of the risks. That way the system doesn’t fail when implemented.
Unno： The systems are designed under the idea that humans are fundamentally good, but indeed there will be people who try to abuse it or use it to skip work.
Watanabe： The members discuss the pros and cons of all systems when they are proposed, but usually we test it out, and through trial and error manage it and slowly settle it in.
Unno： Also, while the systems play a big part, another large reason why it’s easy to work here is due to the understanding and support from your coworkers.
Watanabe： Once there was a case where a mother employee’s salary was going to drop after coming back from maternal leave.
Unno： She was a consultant and worked very hard, but when she rejoined in a staff position her salary dropped a fair bit.
Watanabe： As a result she said she was going to quit, and got into a huge argument with Takaoka.
Unno： One of the reasons for this is that originally up until then there were no salary rises for staff positions. If you work for a long time then your skills become more proficient, and your productivity rises, but at the time no matter how much you worked your salary wouldn’t change. There was a sense of danger that at this rate our highly skilled staff will leave, and so the project team for the HR system was created, and both me and Unno became members.
Watanabe： It’s difficult to think of how to evaluate staff workers, but Takaoka told us if we can think up a good way to do it he’s fine with bringing in salary rises, and so we set to work on designing a system.
Unno： It’s not a case of one of consulting and staff positions being better than the other, and if someone in a staff position works hard they can get promotions, salary rises, and even into managerial positions. There are still several issues with applying the system, but as a result of moving forward with the project I feel it’s mostly been set up.
Watanabe： At the base of it is Takaoka’s desire for “people to live a good life in the company”. He doesn’t want a businesslike relationship of company and employees, but sees the people in the workplace as a group of colleagues who live life together. Thanks to this mindset, you can come back to the company after maternal leave, and if you have some sort of hindrance that prevents you from continuing your job then you can great a system to deal with it.
Unno： I reckon there are companies where for example in a newly-wed woman applies then they have reservations about hiring them. They reckon that they’ll soon have a child and quit. However, we don’t think that way, and if we feel that we want to work with that person, then even if they get pregnant straight away we just have to get them to work with us for a long time after they come back from maternity leave. We consider what we have to do for that person to be able to keep working for a long time.
Watanabe： I know it sounds a bit like we’re tooting our own horn, but it really is a good company isn’t it? We have an employee who is going to move to Brazil. Right now she is working as a sales assistant, or partner, in the Utsunomiya office. Her husband works for a global manufacturer and has been transferred to Brazil, and it has been decided that she will go along with him. However, we have made it so that she will continue to work for us even after moving to Brazil in February.
Unno： Of course we don’t have a branch office in Brazil, but she didn’t want to quit. She says that in five years or so when she returns to Japan she wants to become a full-time worker here again. Until then we plan to make her do handle general affairs as a part time worker while in Brazil. We still haven’t decided the details, but we’re thinking about using mail to get her to schedule appointments and create mail magazines. We want to move ahead with the idea that work is something you create yourself, and plan to instead use the twelve hour difference beneficially. In this way she should have no issues working even from Brazil.
Watanabe： If you think about it our company will be able to provide 24 hour correspondence which might be quite good.
Unno： It seems that in most cases where their husband is transferred abroad, the wife will usually either take a break from work or quit and follow their husband along. We originally tried to send them out as a full-time employee, but her husband’s company said that it would be impossible for her to head over as a full-time employee, and we reluctantly had to give up on that plan.
Watanabe： As long as you’re an organization you can’t change the company based on the individual needs of the employees. However, as a company we always try to search for answers, so that even if an employee’s lifestyle goes through a large change, we look for a method to somehow deal with it.
Unno： The current case with the move to Brazil is also one of these, but I believe that if we have a number of good precedents in the company, then it will be much easier for the people who join is in the future to work here too. For example, a father employee working fully from home, or working while living in a place like Furano…
Watanabe： Exactly. Also it may allow them to carry out a side job at the same time. If we can implement a number of good systems then, for example, there might be people who work as a chef just for the weekend, or have some other interesting workstyle. I believe we are obtaining a corporate culture where such a thing is possible.
Unno： Our turnover is very low, and only three people have quit in the ten years since our establishment.
Watanabe： That’s because when we hire people we’re not looking at how much they can contribute to the revenue of the company, but because we think we’d like to work together with them for life. And so, in cases where an employee’s lifestyle doesn’t match with the company’s system, such as pregnancy or a husband’s transfer, we try and create a system which means they won’t have to quit.
Unno： At our company we have the employees make posters of what they find important and stick them on the wall. For example, listening to music or mountain climbing. The employees share these between them.
Watanabe： Time on your own is very important as a way of refreshing yourself, and also helps raise your motivation as a human. As a result, the quality of your work also increases.
Unno： We gradually built up an environment where the employees understand what case each cares about. At the same time it also provides opportunities for employees to think about what actually is important to them.
Watanabe： However, it’s a bit different to “work life balance” that is so often talked about. It’s not about balance, but about being all out in both your work and private life.
Unno： Watanabe, you’re taking three months extended leave from May to August right?
Watanabe： I was invited to join a mountain climbing group, and am going to climb K2 in the Himalayas, the second tallest mountain in the world. It’s a total of 8611 metres (28251 feet) tall, and in terms of climbing to the summit is said to be more difficult than Everest, making it the most difficult mountain to climb in the world.
Unno： The death rate for climbers is 26.8%...
Watanabe： I was worried about when to tell the CEO Takaoka that I wished to take a break from the company for three months. Right then Takaoka came to Sendai and we had a chance to go drinking together, and when I mentioned it at the izakaya, I got the very unexpected response of “That’s great! That’s far more impressive than managing a company!”.
Unno： That’s quite unexpected.
Watanabe： As we don’t have an extended leave system in the company I will use my paid leave, and take the rest as unpaid absence. By the way most of the ten people who I’ll be going with will either quit their company, or are retirees. There are also people who work at companies like Mont-bell and do a job related to mountains.
Unno： There aren’t many companies that will let you take a three month break.
Watanabe： Our company has had the idea of a “life holiday” system since its establishment, where if you work for ten years you can take six months off and do what you want.
Unno： As we will be turning ten years old in 2018, Takaoka will be the first to take it.
Watanabe： Through this system your life should become more enriched. A company with employees who have done what they want through a “life holiday” would definitely be interesting, is the main idea behind it.
Unno： In your case will you be seen as taking part of your “life holiday” in advance?
Watanabe： I wonder. At any rate as it’s a company which has that kind of mindset, they are supporting me with my trip to K2. Also, from 2018 we are renaming our “summer holiday” system and reintroducing it as “innovation holiday”. Once a year any employee can rest whenever they want for five days consecutively. If you fit Saturday and Sunday at the start and end it ends up as a nine day holiday.
Unno： Regions is a company that aims to support what individuals want to do. The reason we’re currently considering a qualification acquisition support system is also due to this.
Watanabe： Right now we give grants for national qualifications for career consultants or qualifications related to career counselling, but are trying to spread that further to include other qualifications too.
Unno： It is however important to consider how far to spread it.
Watanabe： Talking about all this I’ve come to realize once again just how good how a company it is. Even though it’s just a small company with thirty employees, there are lots of systems in place, and it supports individuals so much. Companies like this are very rare. If I quit here I might become unable to work at another company.
Unno： There are even people who join because even though it’s a small company we prove maternity leave before and after childbirth. Those people being able to return to and take part actively in work means that the number of people who want to work here will increase further. I feel that it’s become quite a good cycle.
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