With helmet and mouth protection into open plan office

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In Japan Elisa Hahn has learnt to "read" her colleagues – because in Asian culture direct feedback is regarded as being impolite and inconsiderate. In addition she explains in the interview why she found helmet and gloves in her desk drawer and why in Japan the mail distribution lists are usually enormous.

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Elisa Hahn (30) studied pharmaceutics at the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. She has been working as a Quality Assurance Manager at Roche since August 2013, from 2016 until March 2017 she was at a partner company in Tokyo.

Elisa, what were your experiences in the Japanese working world? What runs differently there than with us in Germany?

In my view the greatest difference: In Japan "open space office" really means huge room. 100 people are not rare here; the desks are much smaller than with us in Germany and everything is very functionally furnished. On my first day at work at the office in Tokyo, I found a helmet and gloves in my writing desk drawer for the event of an earthquake, and in addition to this a food ration for two days. It was also unusual for me that employees still come to work when they have a cold – and then wear a mask. Apart from this, hardly an opportunity is missed in Japan to take off or change the shoes. So for example for hygienic reasons the shoes are changed in most toilets.

With regard to interpersonal relations: In Japan it is customary that the people are very reserved. One only answers when one is asked, presenting own ideas is not common. If one takes the initiative in conversation, the Japanese colleagues feel quite attacked. In addition to this, the working world is very hierarchically structured and top-down management dominates everyday working life. My advantage was that I had already been working in a project with the Japanese colleagues for 2 1/2 years – this made it easier for me to accommodate to the new situation.

How did it come about that you went to Tokyo?

In Tokyo I worked on the same project that I had already been taking care of from Germany. Together with the Japanese company Chugai, Roche is developing a medication for haemophilia-A patients. To promote a close cooperation, Roche employees repeatedly go to Chugai in Tokyo for some time. This is how the opportunity arose for me to work for half a year at the partner company in Japan.

What was your work like in Tokyo?

Similar to the work in Germany, however, deeper in detail than my position in Germany allows: I supported the technical quality management at Chugai to ensure the product quality. The medicinal product that we are jointly developing is currently going through clinical studies to be authorised for the market and to thereby be available for patients. In association with this, the health authority is conducting a "Pre Licence Inspection" at the company's where the product is being manufactured, during which the quality system is verified. Also due to this it is very important for Roche and Chugai that we harmonise our quality standards – and this is where I help.

And what does this specifically entail?

Each site has different requirements towards the local processes, different IT systems… My job is to make sure that harmonised quality standards are nevertheless maintained. The direct quality assurance, the analyses in the laboratory and the release of the material is performed by Chugai on-site, as they manufacture the medicinal product. It is our mutual goal that the medicinal product is released under the harmonised standards that are applicable at Roche. For this processes need to be defined and for example it needs to be specified how changes in the product are documented and which measures are undertaken before a person enters the sterile room. In Japan I also visited the laboratories that I had previously only known on paper. That is where I found out even more details about the work on site, was able to review much raw data and could personally meet my contact partners.

During your leisure time did you have the opportunity to get to know Japanese culture and visit the places of interest?

Definitely, I used the weekends to travel. For example I went to Nikko, where there are very many historical monuments and temples, to Hiroshima, to the floating shrine in Miyajima and to the island of Okinawa to observe whales. What I above all noticed in the cities: It is very quiet on the roads because due to the lack of parking places there are not so many cars – and because in Japan already many electric cars are on the roads.

Were there any difficult situations?

I sometimes found the continuous consensus-building tiresome in Japan. In the culture there it is important that all those involved are continuously informed and are in accord. This leads to huge mail distribution lists and full meetings because everyone needs to be involved who even only remotely has something to do with the topic. This is often arduous and time-consuming.

Did the stay abroad fulfil your expectations?

The stay more than fulfilled my expectations because I never had expected to be able to immerse myself so deeply in the Japanese culture. I was surprised how large the cultural differences are between Germany and Japan. One could really see and feel them in the non-verbal communication that is so important in Japan. An example: The fear of losing face is very large in Japan; therefore one only receives indirect feedback. During my stay in Tokyo I learnt to "read" the face of my boss and the colleagues.

For example a Japanese "yes" with fervent nodding of the head in most cases merely means "yes, I am listening" or "yes, I have understood what you are saying". A real confirmation or agreement can be identified on the basis of the non-verbal communication and through the understanding of the hierarchy levels. A direct "no" does not exist, in Japan it is circumscribed with flowery phrases such as "we will check the matter" or "it is still a little bit difficult". This indirectness is regarded as being polite and considerate – the most important thing is to maintain the inter-relational harmony.

What understanding do you take with you from Japan?

The project between Chugai and Roche continues, and the cooperation is now more finely coordinated. I know the people there better now, understand the hierarchies and know who I need to address. What made me excited: to see how much knowledge is available in the Japanese company and how proud the employees are of the product. This additionally gives me a quite different satisfaction and security in my work. And from the everyday life I take the memory of the great service culture in Japan along with me: One is always served in a friendly manner, in the supermarket the purchases are packed for you and the public cleanliness is enormous – I missed this immediately after my return to Germany.

©Roche with e-fellows.net, June 2017

Tags: Germany, Career Blog