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Uniqlo Is Rethinking Japanese Work Culture–Through Office Design

Allied Works Architecture and Fast Retailing think Western work spaces could be big in Japan. Can design help change the nation’s hierarchical work culture?

Designed by Allied Works Architecture, the new headquarters of Fast Retailing–Uniqlo’s parent company–features open-plan office spaces, lounges done up with plants to resemble outdoor gardens, a library filled with books and magazines from around the world, and a room with stadium seating where all 1,200 employees can gather for company functions. While it bears the hallmarks of what we expect creative offices to look like in the West, it’s actually a first for corporate Japan.

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The Silicon Valley-style office–open-plan work spaces, food on-site, communal lounge areas–has become common in many industries. It has also been exported to Westernized countries around the world as companies believe this type of design encourages its employees to become more creative, more productive, and happier. One holdout? Japan, which maintains a traditional work culture at the corporate level.

[Image: courtesy Allied Works]
Teamwork is important in large and small creative companies in the West, but so is the idea of the individual creative genius: the Steve Jobs of the design and business world. Employees are encouraged to take risks and be independent. Japanese work culture is more hierarchical and more collective: There is deep respect for elders, superiors, and those above you on the corporate ladder. Fast Retailing wanted to lose some of the rigidity, but also wanted to retain elements that make its employees strong: attention to detail, discipline, and respect.

When Fast Retailing decided to build its new headquarters, it took a gamble on the Silicon Valley model in hopes that it would unleash more creativity in employees, and, in turn, make the business stronger and more competitive. The new office opened this year–will it work?

In 2013, Tadashi Yanai, Fast Retailing’s founder and Japan’s wealthiest man, hired Allied Works Architecture–the art-driven firm behind Wieden + Kennedy’s offices and the Clyfford Still Museum–to develop the design. “Not only was he questioning how they work as a company, he was really questioning Japanese corporate culture at the same time,” Allied Works principal Brad Cloepfil says. “That was the deep challenge: How much can you evolve Japanese work culture in one leap?”

[Photo: Nacasa & Partners]
Located in Ariake, a newer waterfront district in Tokyo, the six-story building–whose footprint is as large as a New York City block–includes a new distribution center, full-scale prototype showrooms for Uniqlo, and office space, which is confined to one floor and was the scope of Allied Works’ involvement. The 200,000-square-foot space has around 30 different types of space where employees can work. In the former headquarters, which was spread across multiple floors of a downtown office tower, there were only two: standard-issue desks and glass-walled conference rooms.

When Allied Works embarked on the project, it didn’t want to simply drop a Silicon Valley office into the building. Rather, the architects zeroed in on what those offices supposedly provide employees: freedom. “We know from our experience with Western companies, people want to work outside the office, inside the office, at home, and in bars,” Cloepfil says. “In our culture today, the city is the work space.”

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[Image: courtesy Allied Works]
Using the city as a metaphor for what the office should embody, Allied Works thought about the space as a combination of public and private areas, streets, and town squares. This is all to increase chance run-ins and serendipitous encounters, a well-known Silicon Valley trope about how innovation happens.

“It’s believing in human nature that when [the employees] are freed up and can meet in an incidental way, they can have space to think,” Cloepfil  says. “It cultivates ideas.”

In the old office, employees had to leave to buy food or beverages, but in the new one there are a few options: vending machines placed in the hallway (just like they are on Tokyo’s streets) for something quick and a more formal cafeteria setting. To get to the work spaces from the hallway, employees pass through doorways that mimic porches derived from Japanese houses.

[Photo: Nacasa & Partners]
Yanai wanted to make employees feel comfortable and at home so the architects took cues from residential design. Aside from the desks, most of the furniture in the space–lounge chairs, sofas, wood tables–is more residential in nature, too, which ties back to Silicon Valley’s philosophy: There’s no distinction between work and life and work can take place anytime, anywhere. Need to take a break from your desk? Remember to take your laptop to the couch with you.

There’s a gradation of activity from the busier hall to conference rooms, to work lounges with pin-up walls and long work tables, to individual desks, which helps reduce distractions for focused activities.

Because of the cultural differences and how different the new office is from the old one, Allied Works wondered if the experiment would work. Would employees use the spaces as the architects intended? Fast Retailing held a number of internal training sessions with managers to make sure they understood what the space was trying to accomplish and ensure that all employees knew they had the agency and permission to work where and how they wanted.

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The new offices opened this year, and, sure enough, the employees used every space available to them, didn’t stay chained to their desks, and were excited about the design. Though they have flexibility, they still have to cope with the annoyances of an open office like noise and little visual privacy. Time will tell if satisfaction declines once the novelty wears off.

[Photo: Nacasa & Partners]
Uniqlo’s new headquarters and style of working are emblematic of a broader change in its business and creative strategy, which began over five years ago when it set out to best fast-fashion behemoths H&M and Zara. The company has long been known for its technical innovations–like new fabrics, attention to detail, and quality, inexpensive garments–but it wasn’t communicating that value to consumers as effectively as it could have. In 2014, the company’s stock dipped nearly 8%, and opening new stores internationally, its growth strategy at the time, wasn’t working.

That same year, the brand poached Wieden + Kennedy’s creative director John Jay to lead its creative revolution. Since joining the brand, Jay has changed how the company thinks about design. It wasn’t just about bringing Uniqlo’s philosophy to the world; it was about bringing the world into Uniqlo and using that insight to develop better, more desirable products. For example, the company has research and design centers in cities around the world–Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Tokyo–in which designers tap into the sensibilities inherent to those areas and feed it back into the overall collection.

[Photo: Nacasa & Partners]
The redesign of Fast Retailing–from its physical offices to its workplace culture, business structure, and distribution strategy (it aspires to offer next-day shipping in more markets)–is all in the name of growth. Yanai had a longtime goal to reach $48 billion in sales by 2020, but after disappointing returns, he scaled back ambitions in 2016 to reach $29 billion by 2020.

Yanai has Silicon Valley-level growth ambitions, and now he has the office to match. Fast Retailing still has a long way to go. Yanai’s goal is to overtake Inditex, the parent company of Zara, which posted over $27 billion in sales in 2016, compared to Fast Retailing’s $17 billion. The company is still finding its footing in the United States, grappling with the ups and downs of Japan’s economy, and like many retailers is experimenting with new sales strategies in its physical locations and online. A slick new headquarters might not be enough to overcome these hurdles, but then again it could help Yanai and his team hatch their next great plan.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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