Sansan: Changing the way Japan works

This Tech Research Asia end user case study analyses the results of SanSan's workplace strategy. It provides an overview of the company’s move into a new office in the uptown Aoyama area in Tokyo along with its use of remote working.

The When, Who and What

Sansan’s mission is to change the way that people work. It’s core service offering – a cloud-based digital directory and analysis of your business cards – effectively bridges the chasm between traditional and modern business etiquette. The company strives to generate contemporary digital value out of business cards, or meishi as they are known and still heavily used in Japan. In March 2014, the company moved into a new office space in the trendy Aoyama district of Tokyo.

The Why

With a publically stated mission to change the way people work Sansan has to walk the talk. While its main offering is anchored in a ritual intimately tied to the way business has been done in Japan for generations – the exchange of the business card – it is pursuing a flexible and progressive workplace strategy. Core reasons for this are to ensure that its customers can see that contemporary ways of working are not incompatible with traditions like the business card. To fail at this would be to undermine its own value proposition. But Sansan also has to fight to attract great engineers, which are in fierce demand in Japan and would not normally at face value consider the company to be a place that would satisfy. Further to this, the company wanted to unify its teams and heighten existing levels of loyalty.

The How

(For seven years Sansan had its offices located in Ichigaya, a downtown business area in Tokyo known mainly for being, well, a business area full of non-descript offices. The company started with four young friends working out of one of these offices, donning the salaryman uniform of plain suits and ties. However, over the years as the company grew they grew into a more casual culture like that of many software firms. It adopted free address seating (Japan’s description for hot desking) and adorned its bland office space with a ping pong table and tatami mats. It also appointed one of its founders, Motohisa Tsunokawa as a chief workstyle officer (CWO); a rare position in Japan, let alone for a small business.

As Sansan hit upon a period of exponential growth and realised its culture was different from the Ichigaya scene, it went searching for a new office space in the trendy Aoyama area. This took some time because the Aoyama area has lots of small offices but not one that could accommodate Sansan’s existing 100 employees and its future growth. But eventually they secured a 1000 sqm office with a striking Tokyo skyline view and moved into the digs in March 2014.

The new mainly open plan office has an entrance that is meant to reflect the analogue and digital worlds, sporting a digital receptionist in the form of a large touch screen (from TeamLab, a Japan design firm). This is often the first sign an office visitor has that a company in Tokyo has a progressive workplace strategy. Most small Japanese organisations will often have just a desk phone and a list of extension numbers to call to greet visitors and larger firms employ the traditional receptionist.

A feature space of the new office is called the Garden room, which is a big multi-purpose meeting space with plants, hammocks, plenty of natural light from big windows, and wooden tables and chairs form which to work. It also has a bunk bed with pillows for people to sleep when they want a power nap. Productivity is the aim, to allow people to nap and then improve on their return to work. The company uses the space for its company town hall events (when every employee participates) and has a permanent live video feed of its satellite office, which is housed in a traditional farm house in the town of Kamiyama on Shikoku Island. They also have work-at-home employees in Niigata and Nagano, along with engineers working at coworking spaces in Kyoto.

The new office has also enabled the company to run hackathons or study sessions three times a month in the space where anyone, including members of the public, can attend (upon registration). The aim is to show Sansan’s engineering level is high and to attract new people. It is hard to attract good engineers in Japan even if you throw money at them. It’s also hard to understand at face value why a company like Sansan is an attractive place to work. At the previous office they couldn’t do any of this.

Although the company previously had hot desking, they moved away from this approach to provide every employee with their own permanent seat in the new office. However, the technology employed allows them to be mobile at any time and to work from any place within the office and outside. It also allows remote workers to be directly involved in proceedings and for sales teams to engage customers that are in remote locations.

In short the technology Sansan uses, includes:

  • iPhones with extension number powrtability
  • Notebooks for all employees (half Windows, half Mac)
  • Ubiuitous WiFi
  • Wireless projectors and displays in all meeting rooms
  • Video conferencing (with special sound proof booths for sales teams doing remote support/sales)
  • Audio Visual linked to teleconferencing for the Garden Room
  • Office 365 and Yammer
  • Line
  • Some also use Google Apps and Dropbox
  • Engineers often use Slack
  • Sansan’s own cloud-based services (which are located on AWS)
  • LED lighting

The Outcomes

Sansan Chief Workstyle Officer Motohisa Tsunokawa was asked to rate the contribution of the new office to a set of common business goals on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is a very positive outcome, and 1 is a negative outcome.

Growth – 9. The concept of moving to the office was to make a unified and collaborative Sansan that all employees are committed to driving success. The company is about changing the way people work, so they wanted to do that themselves.

Cost management – 5. SanSan has not really considered this outcome

Risk Management – 6. The most important risk for them is security. They have many systems for managing it including with the office entry. They have also reduced paper, thereby improving the physical security of data and information.

CSR – 4. They have used LED lighting to be more ecological, but otherwise the impact is minimal.

Client Engagement – 8. They now have a space to hold events that clients can come to and see Sansan’s skills and culture.

Talent Management – 9. The office and workplace strategy is flexible and allows them to compete for top talent.

Productivity and Innovation – 9. Employees can work from where they want depending on the space and the perception is that they are more committed to the company.

The Next Steps for SanSan

Sansan plans to keep driving towards its mission regardless of how big they become and how much the company make up changes. They are working towards making the brand known for this mission and to have the office and workplace strategy reflect this. They are also moving into new floors in the same building as they grow in headcount.