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On Evolving Workstyles An In-Depth Conversation with the Human Resources Dept. and General Affairs & IT Operation Dept.

On Evolving Workstyles An In-Depth Conversation with the Human Resources Dept. and General Affairs & IT Operation Dept.

Sojitz sees workstyle reforms as an important business management issue, and the company has worked to institute a number of reform policies. Due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, our workstyles have undergone rapid changes. Despite facing many unforeseen circumstances, the Human Resources Dept. and General Affairs & IT Operation Dept. played a central role in creating a safe and smoothly-functioning work environment. We spoke with members of both departments to hear about new working styles and how each department responded and collaborated under the state of emergency.
(Interview held July 13, 2020)

Toshiaki Kasai

Executive Officer, COO
Human Resources Dept., General Affairs & IT Operation Dept.

Katsunori Okada

General Manager
Human Resources Dept.

Ayako Takami

Manager *
Health Support Office, Human Resources Dept.

*Appointments as of August 1st

Makiya Nami

General Manager
General Affairs & IT Operation Dept.

Yaeko Kashiwai

Assistant General Manager
General Affairs Sect. General Affairs & IT Operation Dept.

The first order of business was to confirm the health of our employees and secure a safe working environment

After we entered this new year, the spread of COVID-19 cases escalated. February through April was particularly hectic with circumstances changing from one moment to the next. In your respective departments, what actions did you take in response to the virus?

Nami: At the end of January, Japan began widely broadcasting news of the spread of the virus in Wuhan, China. As part of the IT team, we considered there could be potential viral spread in Japan from Chinese tourism to Japan during China’s New Year holiday. In late January, we anticipated the possibility of a company-wide telework policy being implemented in response to the virus. We had a telework system in place already, so the groundwork was already laid. However, only a limited number of employees had used the telework system at that juncture. We determined it would be necessary to confirm the scope covered by remote access licenses, as well as to check on the server capacity in the event hundreds of employees tried to log on remotely at the same time and to add additional server capacity.

Okada: Thanks to our early preparations, we were able to avoid any system-related glitches when the company-wide telework policy was put into effect on April 1st. As the Human Resources Dept., we asked section managers in all departments to keep in close communication with the members of their section to ensure clarity on all work assignments during telework. The Health Support Office, an organization under the Human Resources Dept., was also doing its best to monitor employee health.

Takami: We are continuing to use the Health Support Office’s email address to centrally manage information regarding the health of all Sojitz employees, including members of Sojitz Group companies in Japan and overseas. We are therefore able to monitor the spread of infection within the Group, communicate with family members as necessary, and seamlessly monitor the working status of employees. As a result, we were able to avoid any major confusion, and I believe these measures have led employees to feel a greater sense of safety and stability.

Kashiwai: The General Affairs Sect. was also taking action to create a safe working environment. In order to prevent the spread of infection we needed to secure alcohol disinfectant, which proved to be a major challenge. Up until now, hand sanitizer had been installed in the office as one of our emergency supplies. At HQ, roughly 10 liters of disinfectant are usually used per month; during the peak virus stage in March, the amount used was roughly 15 liters per week.

Kasai: In March, the Human Resources Dept. and General Affairs & IT Operation Dept. were exceptionally busy preparing for telework and securing the necessary equipment for the office. Another challenge was handling the employees on overseas assignment and on business trips around the world. We took steps to monitor the health of employees and set up a system to protect employees and their families working outside Japan.

With a different situation in each country, what actions did you take with regard to Sojitz Group companies overseas and employees on assignment?

Nami: After restrictions were placed on travel to China, we instructed Sojitz employees on assignment in China to begin putting their work affairs in order. These employees were then divided into groups based on their office, and we scheduled their return to Japan in phases. Later, when the virus spread in other regions and employees were directed to return to Japan, we were able to use the process we followed in China as a model. We determined the best course in these cases by working alongside the HR Dept. and each overseas office.

Okada: As the circumstances differ in each country and office, the final decisions were up to the individual and branch manager, but we helped to come up with a plan with considerations for safety based on the local lifestyle, medical care, spread of infection, and outgoing flights, as well as local business operations. Fast action is necessary to secure outgoing flights, and we were able to act quickly in securing these flights.

Kashiwai: Thanks to cooperation within Sojitz Group, we were able to procure masks and distribute them to Sojitz branches overseas. By sending masks to Sojitz employees on assignment and to even to the homes of their families (in Japan), we hope to have also delivered some peace of mind.

Tackling one issue at a time amidst uncertainty to create a positive work environment

Since the company began remote work from April, in what areas are you seeing changes?

Nami: Since telework became mandatory for employees, we saw a rapid proliferation of users of Microsoft Teams. Although we installed Microsoft Teams last year, one issue was the low rate of users. However, while working remotely employees have been forced to rely on Microsoft Teams, and now roughly 100% of employees have used its online meeting and scheduling functions.

Takami: The online chat function was particularly convenient. I used it to ask people questions that I normally would have casually asked in person.

Nami: We received a lot of positive feedback about the chat function and web meeting functions, particularly from employees who were happy to cut back on time spent shuttling to and from conference rooms. While these work-from-home circumstances were certainly unexpected, in terms of having Microsoft Teams adopted after installation, it was highly rewarding to see our labor bear fruit after much preparation.

Okada: While our company generally uses Microsoft Teams, we also made use of Zoom for our recruitment activities, which has seen widespread usage among students. Zoom has well-developed functions that include webinars and breakout group discussions, so we opted to use Zoom to carry out some of our trainings.

Nami: One major result we’re seeing from doing telework that people are more willing to try web meetings and communicating using online chat systems despite a general aversion to using these tools in the past. This openness is a change in attitude that will certainly be a boon moving forward as working styles continue to evolve and we adopt new tools in the future.

Gaining command of new IT tools is certainly a positive change. On the other hand, are there any issues arising unique to telework? Do you have any examples of issues you’ve addressed?

Kasai: With school closings and online lessons, one concern that we’ve heard from employees with children is the difficulty of juggling childcare responsibilities alongside their work. Working from home makes it difficult for parents to focus solely on their work without interruptions. Based on these concerns, President Fujimoto proposed a new type of leave called “Coronavirus Special Leave” that could be applied during the state of emergency as paid leave.

Okada: One of the concerns raised was that employees would not be able to take paid leave for their personal vacation if all of their leave was used for childcare and nursing leave. That’s why we created this new leave system separate from the existing paid leave, so that people can feel comfortable enough to take time off as necessary during this state of emergency. While we set this policy up spontaneously, we had close to 24 men and women of all ages take this special leave.

Takami: Another issue with telework are the physical and mental health-related problems that arise from spending long hours working at home. We have tried to keep employees healthy by putting out some health-related guidelines compiled by a certified nutritionist and industrial psychiatrist for how to stay healthy at home. Under these circumstances, I think these kinds of communications from the company have helped to put employees at ease.

Kasai: Looking ahead, we will need to take new measures and come up with solutions in relation to these new workstyles, such as guidelines for administering web meetings and handling sensitive information when working from home.

New working styles and Sojitz’s future

The environment has changed drastically in unexpected ways. Taking the current circumstances into account, how do you foresee Sojitz’s workstyle changing in the future?

Okada: From July (the time of this interview), we did not have everyone return to the office five days a week. Fundamentally, two to three days maximum should be telework days. When we originally implemented telework, the purpose was to encourage employees to be innovative during the time they would have otherwise spent commuting and therefore raise the productivity of the entire organization. Based on the results we’ve seen since April after implementing company-wide telework, we plan to make use of the positive aspects and address some of the more problematic areas as we strive to increase individual work efficiency and overall productivity for the organization.
According to a telework-related survey conducted in May, we saw that reducing in-person meetings and cutting back on commuting led to greater work efficiency. At the same, we began to hear concerns from many managers who felt they were unable to guide or evaluate their employees without being able to oversee their work in person. As we adjust to our new daily routines, we must be sure to consider business procedures while placing even greater emphasis on results in our evaluations. In order to do so, initial goal-setting should focus on SMART goals*.
*SMART goals: An acronym to guide goal-setting in order to better measure the degree of achievement. Smart goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Related, and Time-bound.

Nami: Coronavirus is an ongoing issue. In the General Affairs & IT Operation Dept., we are making adjustments to the office environment in this age of corona. For instance, we are spacing out office equipment so that people can maintain appropriate social distancing. As part of these efforts, we reduced the number of desks by 40% at the end of June and set up a free address system of unassigned seating for our roughly 50-member department. Additionally, there are documents that are difficult to handle during telework such as contracts that require a seal of approval, but if we continue the digitization process not only will we be able to alleviate this burden of work but also achieve our goal for the fiscal year of reducing paper usage by 50% and beyond.
Under these emergency conditions, there were some rules and procedures implemented as special, exceptional measures. The changes in work styles and evolution in thinking inspired by coronavirus should not be a one-time occurrence; it is necessary to consider reforms as a continuing conversation.

Kasai: One of Sojitz’s 5 Guiding Principles is “Innovate with Foresight.” The situation we are facing now has no precedent or correct response. However, management and those working on-site have been able to respond to these irregular circumstances together as a united front. This successful collaboration can be attributed to each individual and each department’s willingness to work innovatively. In the future, we will continue to encounter unforeseen events. Even as values and work styles change, Sojitz will continue to pursue innovation that fits the times and the environment. Sojitz will pave the way for its future as a company that continues to provide value to society.

September 2020

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