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Reinventing 'Work' in Japan through office Design

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The Job

One of my first big job assignments working for Brainlab, a cutting edge software developer improving neurosurgery and radiotherapy, was the creation of an office space in Tokyo, a complete makeover of the current layout. The CEO, Stefan Vilsmeier, laid the foundations for Brainlab when he was 17 and 27 years later is still its CEO. He is one of the most passionate and determined people I have met. "We are an amazing company and I want every aspect of our cooperation to reflect that," Stefan told me.

Left, the CEO of Brainlab Stefan Vilsmeier with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the opening ceremony of the new HQ in 2017

After a few weeks of research and preparation I came back to the HQ in Munich. I was gloomy, because I had to revise my initial estimate for the cost of the project. The idea was to create a jungle-like atmosphere with flexible seating, open space, natural light and large coffee area. It would cost around six times more than I had initially presented. The budget I suggested initially was not big enough for anything satisfactory. I was certain the project would be killed. I went the CEO's office and said: "So Stefan, the cost of what we wanted to do is just too high." Typing on his keyboard, he was like "Is it going to be great?". Not the question I expected. I hesitated and asked "What do you mean?" With the same disengaged tone he rephrased "'What we wanted to do' - is it going to be great?". I needed a second to think and started explaining: "I mean, we wanted to really challenge conventional wisdom about work and work-life in general in Japan, so 'Yes' we have all the-" He interrupted me: "Then get to work." That's the kind of person he is.

 The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

I have to admit that I fell in love with this company even before submitting my CV. Not only is it a highly innovative medical tech company, it is also very unique in its sense of style and aesthetics. Every cell and thread of this company screams boldly of 'innovation'. 

The Japanese subsidiary had kind of developed on its own for many years. As I realize today, very typical for Japan-based foreign companies, only the name is foreign, and inside you find ancient hierarchical traditions that date back to feudal Japan. The appearance of the office, we believed, would initiate a radical change and was among other projects one of the major things we wanted to tackle.

Before submitting anything in terms of design, I had spent a lot of time understanding how the software Brainlab produces works. I realized that 'challenge to conventional wisdom' was the soul of the company. The software they develop has revolutionized the way neurosurgeons can remove tumors and oncologists can make radiotherapy treatment plans.

How to Reinvent Work in japan


Imagine the average boring western-style office and take it several notches down, add tiny spaces, tiny desks, no natural light, no lighting concept whatsoever, clutter, sleeping colleagues, cables, endless meetings, zero discussions. Basically something like this picture on the left (a google search result on "Japanese office")

First, I had to understand the 'conventional wisdom' of working in Japan. It is terrible. Long hours, abusive work relationships, no emphasis on output. The work spaces are a perfect representation of that - unless you work for Google or IDEO. Japan has an infamously brutal work culture. "People work themselves to death" is what we usually associate with the salaryman culture, the modern day necktie-wearing samurai. However, there is another side: It is not unheard of that an 80-year-old company has never fired anybody of its employees, ever. On the other hand, offices are filled with people who mentally retired 20 years ago, creating their safe space and do not want to be bothered. So, I would say that the average employer-employee relationship is like a loveless (sexless!) marriage. You stay together, but you certainly do not make any babies (maybe one for appearances sake). Hence, the conventional Japanese office is as exciting as the bedroom of a couple that last had intercourse 30 years ago. 

Let's get tO work

 One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

The creation of the concept was great fun. I quickly threw many conventional partners overboard. Most of the suggestions we received were a copy of the same old. In the end we assembled a creative team of which half did not came from traditional office creation business.

In the process we carved out what we  believed to be the office design that would turn the company around: A slick office with plenty of natural light, plants, natural materials and open spaces. Fostering communication in a comfortable environment was important.

 An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

While the CEO had some clear ideas on material, I spent a lot of time with each employee. Precisely 90 minutes with each. It was important to me that the design would reflect their needs. For example, I realized that most informal communication between back office staff happened at the coffee machine. Being next to the printer, it was not really a space you could hang out at for too long. We also realized that sales people were working a lot at the coffee shop next door. So our coffee area needed to be more attractive than the coffee shop, have better coffee and invite people to take a break and chat. A place to share news openly was needed as much as an area to close the door and get things done.

With the final paper model under my arm, I went to Munich to present the idea.

"The office’s interior architecture creates a comfortable and ergonomic atmosphere. Japanese architectural style meets international flair to create a space that has both a traditional and modern feel. A harmonic green oasis, with large personal work spaces, clean and efficient surfaces and cooperative areas allow for collaboration, creativity and productivity to flourish. The jungle concept is harmonic to Brainlab's values, as its “life” the employees seek to protect with their work by selling and manufacturing world-famous, high-end technology in the fight against disease and cancer."

Bingo! The CEO liked it, added a few final touches and then a work-extensive period commenced.

And theN it happened ...

Creating a new appearance became an all-engaging job. Rebuilding the ship we sail in became a job everybody was involved in. For the main construction phase, we had to decide to either temporarily rent a space or to suck it up and work from the warehouse so we could add that money to the construction budget. We chose the latter.

I learned that a cool office is not the solution to all your company problems. Coherent leadership, clarity and vision are very important. However, a physical space needs to reflect the ambitions and values of the people that choose to be inside of it. It is home. It is trust. It caries huge symbolism to the people that work there and to people who think about it.

For us, the creation of the Brainlab Japan office was a transformative experience. Afterwards we found hiring easier, we could use less expensive agencies and had better retaining rates, so the construction cost was a good investment. This process was set off in part by the CEO's simple request: "do something great". 


Below is a video of the whole renovation process of the Japan office of Brainlab. Have a look and let me know what you think!

Brainlab commemorated its fifteen years in Japan with a newly designed office. The over 500 m² space is located in a vibrant area between Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge, a few minutes from the Tokyo Bay waterfront.