A new office building bursting with ways to create new connections
In April 2017, we relocated from the Shinagawa area of Tokyo to Hanzomon, to establish a new corporate headquarters for LIFULL. The concept behind this move was to create an office environment that offers an ideal “new arena for communication,” unlike anything we have had before. We called this the “ENGAWA Project.” We talked to key project members Tomohiko Ando, Takashi Itoi, MotohitoIizuka and Daisuke Miyata, about their thoughts and the inevitable incidents that occurred along the way.
- The three threads that came together with miraculous timing to clinch relocation
- Finally getting started… Fleshing out dreams for the ideal office environment
- How to form “connections”? Refining plans all the way through to future usage
- Creating ways to encourage natural communication, in various different places
- Overcoming various difficulties to turn the new LIFULL into a reality
- This isn’t the end of our relocation project – it’s really just the beginning
The three threads that came together with miraculous timing to clinch relocation
I’ll get the ball rolling by talking about the background that led up to the project. Broadly speaking, there were three key points. Firstly, in my capacity as head of LIFULL HOME’s built-to-order housing business, I was involved in a discussion as part of a leadership program aimed at middle-management. The topic was “exploring office environments that have a positive impact on work.” During the discussion, someone said, “When we started out, this was a venture company with an emphasis on connections between people, but I wonder if that idea has faded somewhat as the company has grown in scale…?” There was also a presentation on “creating engawa, wooden-floored veranda in a traditional Japanese house, at work,” based on the notion of verandas linking the inside and outside of the building. This was before anyone had mentioned relocating our headquarters, or anything like that.
The second key point came up during a conversation about the company with a different group of employees. Someone raised the question, “Does it really make sense for us to be working in a brand new office building like this, when we’re talking about breathing new life into the resale market in the real estate industry?” There was also a specific suggestion that we should renovate an old building and use it as our office. CEO Takashi Inoue seemed to agree, commenting, “Yes, that would definitely make sense.” As the company is still growing, we could easily see that our office in Shinagawa would start to become too small as the number of employees grew. It was then that CEO Inoue came to me and suggested, “Would you like to be part of a team, working with the ENGAWAidea from that previous presentation”? The first thing we did was to start searching for older buildings. We nonetheless struggled to find existing buildings with the capacity to hold 1,000 people or so. In the end, we spent a long time searching for buildings.
The third key point was brand integration, which had been going on behind the scenes all this time. As the process was stepped up, we were informed that integration would be happening in 2017, to coincide with the company’s 20th anniversary. I said to the other members of the building search team, “On that timeline, I don’t suppose we’ll be able to move by then.” As if right on cue however, we just happened to find a suitable building. Even so, there wasn’t enough time for us to relocate there by April 2017. Nonetheless, we knew that if we let this chance pass us by, relocation could drag on indefinitely. At the same time, the outline of the brand seemed to be taking shape nicely. We felt that we just had to take the plunge! With that, the decision to relocate was made. Those three threads came together with miraculous timing. It’s almost like a story where someone is pulling the strings. If these three things hadn’t come together, I don't think we would have been able to relocate. It really feels like it was destined to happen.
Finally getting started… Fleshing out dreams for the ideal office environment
As a result of all this, the official decision to relocate our headquarters was taken at a general meeting of shareholders in June 2016. This was followed by a launch meeting in July, bringing together the members of the ENGAWA Project team. As well as Tomohiko Ando, who came up with the ENGAWA concept, the team consisted of head of internal infrastructure Motohiko Iizuka from the IT systems division, Daisuke Miyata from brand management, and myself from general administration and facilities. Over the course of nine months, leading up to April the following year, we worked together on formulating and implementing plans. We didn’t have much time to prepare, so managers with decision-making authority from each division were assembled.
Ordinarily, we would be to start by listening to opinions from all employees, and then devising a plan based on that. As we were particularly short of time on this project however, we had to opt for this sort of setup instead. We wanted to reduce the time it took to make decisions as much as possible.
Regardless of questions of feasibility, we started by writing down a list of all the issues with our current office. Could we do with more toilets? How many more do we need? How long does each person tend to spend in there? We actually tested things like that! We were just trying to talk through a whole range of different subjects.
Alongside these issues, we put together a list of specific proposals for creating an environment capable of accommodating the ENGAWA concept. If we’re working with outside parties, should we have a restaurant? How about shared office space? We could have greenery on the roof from an environmental standpoint… We even came up with the idea of creating a FAB space equipped with equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters, to further our manufacturing activities. We put our heads together to work out what sort of environment we would need for LIFULL in the future.
That part was fun, because we were talking about our dream office. In reality however, we only had nine months left. Once we had expanded the concept, we had to sift through and pick out the ideas that were realistic. We shared our decisions along the way so that we could gauge how employees would react. It felt like we were more or less going in the right direction.
How to form “connections”? Refining plans all the way through to future usage
When it came to working out actual design plans, we focused particularly on how to form “connections.” That applies to affiliates, clients and even our neighbors, as well as between employees. We wanted the building itself to provide ways for various different people to connect with one another. The idea was to configure the building so as to encourage interaction. To put it another way, we hoped that if employees had access to certain kinds of spaces, they would try using them in certain ways, as part of an employee-led approach to communication.
We decided to leave plenty of room for maneuver in terms of how the building would be used. Our basic approach was to put together the bare essentials prior to relocation, including outlines and concepts, and then to fill in the blanks after we had moved. For example, we asked creative staff to come up with some sort of graphics for the office walls. We devised the café area so that it could be used to entertain clients, or for events such as welcome or farewell parties, receptions with people outside the company, or workshops.
Once we had the stage set, the question was how to convince the actors (employees). Although we were leaving that until after relocation, it was still something we had in mind when working out design plans.
Creating ways to encourage natural communication, in various different places
Right, now for a quick introduction to the new office. First of all, it is an eight-floor building. That offers more than double the floor space of our old office in Shinagawa, with an increase of around one and a half times as much usable space.
On the first floor we have the entrance and a restaurant, which doubles as an employee cafeteria but can also be used by members of the public. On the second floor there is space for meetings with people from outside the company, as well as shared office space for a whole host of business people and creative staff. On the eighth floor meanwhile we have a large conference room. Although there are lots of pillars, due to the fact that the building is around 50 years old, there are fewer on the top floor. This allows for a more open space that can accommodate seminars and other such events. It is a space that strongly reflects the ENGAWA concept.
From the third to seventh floors we have practical office space, with built-in ways to improve the flow of people. We concentrated meeting spaces in the fifth floor, right in the middle of these floors, so that people would not come and go only on the same floor. This means that people come together from both above and below, which inevitably leads to interaction between employees.
There are clever ideas like this on each floor. The layout works so that technical staff are positioned on the outer edge of each floor, to enable them to concentrate on their work. The next layer in is occupied by directors and members of planning staff. The central part of the floor is reserved for sales staff, who tend to be more mobile in their work. We also introduced a hot-desking system for sales staff in the middle of the floor. Employees who need to work quietly have their own desks on the outside of the floor, while those who move around while working have flexible access to desks in the center. Using a layout that suits different styles of working makes it possible to encourage communication more smoothly.
In terms of interior design too, we have used furniture with a natural feel, including lots of real wood, as well as standard office furniture.
When designing the interior, we asked employees whether they would prefer desks made from real wood or the usual steel. Surprisingly, the results were split half and half. Consequently, we have installed two different types of desk. We have also chosen office chairs with higher backs and improved functionality.
We set out to design an office that would actively encourage interaction between employees, so that they form connections, whilst also meeting employees’ needs in terms of comfortable and functional personal work space. We are hoping that introducing hot-desking will bring about a fundamental change that will promote interaction even more. For instance, sales staff who don’t know each other will have to be more aware of one another as they will be working in the same space. Hearing snippets of phone conversations might well becoming talking points. Or they might just think “keep it down!” Personally, I think we’re trying to send the message that employees should be understanding of annoyances like that, in a good sense.
When you’ve got around 1,000 employees, there are always going to be more and more people you don’t know. We have always done our best to alleviate this by strengthening friendship between employees, through social events for instance, but it would good to encourage more spontaneous interaction on a day-to-day basis.
Overcoming various difficulties to turn the new LIFULL into a reality
It was tough to put together a full plan in such a short space of time. Although we had a concept, in the form of ENGAWA, the number of ideas involved in making that a reality quickly grew. We had to work out how to achieve them all as part of a single plan. For starters, we had a hard time deciding how to bring everything together by April the following year.
As head of facilities, I felt that “Make every LIFE FULL” was a particularly difficult theme to work with. What should we do about providing disabled toilets for instance? As it’s an old building, there isn’t really space for things like that. We don’t have any employees in wheelchairs at the moment, but we were keen to have toilets available for when we have visitors in wheelchairs. We want to make their lives full too. Even so, we also had limited budget and space. So what should we do? Questions like this gave us an opportunity to really think things through. It was really difficult at times, but I still think it’s a great theme.
Working with an old building created difficulties from the point of view of IT infrastructure. Older buildings tend to have lots of pillars, and they are made from heavier concrete than buildings nowadays. As that can block radio waves, we had to measure radio waves repeatedly so that we could create a usable wireless LAN environment. There were times when I spent all day trying to find good pathways for radio waves.
This isn’t the end of our relocation project – it’s really just the beginning
Ordinarily, a company with around 1,000 employees would never renovate an old building to use as an office. It’s much easier to use a new building. The fact that we have retained this left-field element as we have continued to grow however is one of the things I find most exciting about this company. It’s fantastic that we continue to take on challenges and achieve what we want to achieve like that, even 20 years on since the company was founded.
One other thing that I’d really like to say is that meeting and talking to my fellow team members was always a real pleasure. We work in areas that don’t normally overlap, so we really got to know what motivates one another in our work. Through working with the other team members, I also got to experience the “connections” that ran though this project. This has reminded me just how important it is to interact with a range of different people.
Personally, I heard about the LIFULL brand integration first of all, before the subject of relocation came up. We were taking on LIFULL as a new name and creating a space that would embody our philosophy. It’s rare for a company to do something like that. I think the best thing about all of this is that relocation prompted each of us to take a fresh look at the LIFULL brand, so that we were all starting from the same point. Relocation isn’t the end of this project. If anything, it’s just the beginning. We will have no leader on this project from now on, so I hope we can create the ideal office environment in which each and every employee becomes a leader.