Getting Rid of Assumptions Through Communication: Designing the Workstyle Sync to Bring Out the Best in Everyone

At Mercari, we have established a dedicated D&I Team under our HR organization, which we refer to as the People & Culture division. This team works on tackling D&I issues from the perspectives of organizational management and product and service development.

Back in January 2021, Mercari launched the D&I Council, and since then, there have been members from various teams and companies coming together to form task forces and project teams on a volunteer basis in an effort to promote D&I and tackle related issues. The D&I Team is the backbone providing support for such efforts across the Group.

In this edition of Mercan, we sat down with the members of the HD D&I Taskforce, which is the team behind the “Workstyle Sync”—an initiative started to encourage communication among members about their preferred work styles. In our conversation, we asked the project members what kind of issues they were hoping to solve with this project, as well as the significance of communicating about work style, in order to find out how conversations about work style are related to D&I.

And, at the end of this article, we’ve made available the list of questions Mercari uses for our Workstyle Syncs, along with a How To Manual. For those interested in trying these syncs at your own workplace, be sure to read until the very end!

Featured in this article

  • Yuka Ochiai(@Yuka)

    Yuka worked in legal departments of several different tech companies in areas such as electronics, telecommunications, hardware (startup), and web services. She is registered as a New York State lawyer, and joined Mercari in 2020. Yuka is a penguin fanatic with a dream to travel to the South Pole.

  • Shino Ogata(@shino)

    After graduating college, Shino joined a securities company as a new grad. She went on to work on overseas research at an IR consulting firm and IR tasks at a mobile gaming company, before joining Mercari in 2018.

  • Aya Koike(@aya)

    Aya joined CyberAgent, Inc., where she worked in sales in the Internet Advertising division and launched the web marketing division. She later moved to the PR/IR team and was put in charge of IR/SR tasks. In 2017, she joined Mercari and was put in charge of IR from around the time of closing Series E funding and IPO preparations.

It’s important to have conversations, rather than making assumptions

──Before we get into talking about the actual Workstyle Sync, what kind of issues led to the creation of this sync?

@Yuka:At Mercari, we have people of all kinds of backgrounds working with us, and the diversity found here is not just limited to nationality, ethnicity, and language. There is lots of diversity, but the next step is inclusion—there is still work to be done to create an environment where members are able to understand and fully accept each other’s differences.

I felt that in order for people of various backgrounds to work collaboratively, they must understand each other’s preferred work styles first. What kind of environment does each member work best in, and what allows them to truly maximize their potential?

In September 2021, Mercari announced “Your Choice,” a work style policy that focuses on accommodating employees’ diverse ways of working. The introduction of this policy has given members the flexibility to work from anywhere in Japan, but this also means that most of us are no longer working from the same location. Personally, I feel that now more than ever, it’s important for each of us to work with a greater sense of unity among our own teams and organization.

@shino:I also didn’t have many chances to get to know other members, so I was feeling the need for a space to communicate with one another. Even if we’re thinking about others and acting with good intentions, sometimes, our actions may miss the mark. For example, placing members returning to work after giving birth on a “mommy track” (a career path that allows mothers flexible work hours but tends to delay or block advancement) by default, even if they aren’t asking for it.

In order to understand what is best for each individual, it’s important to have conversations, rather than making assumptions. An assumption is just a guess, so there’s a good chance you may be wrong. Especially now that many of us are working remotely, it can be hard to tell what others are going through. These issues were why we felt it was necessary to provide a space to have these conversations and get rid of any assumptions.

@Yuka:Juan from the D&I Team, who is also a core member of this Workstyle Sync project, emphasized from the very beginning that ensuring psychological safety in the workplace is essential to establishing an inclusive culture. That’s when the members of our team started thinking about the need to create a space where people can share their thoughts on diversity and work styles—this is just one more step we are taking toward boosting psychological safety.

The ultimate purpose of the Workstyle Sync is to enable members to enhance their performance

──Now that we have a better understanding of the background, could you tell us more about the Workstyle Sync?

@Yuka:Simply put, it’s a session for members to talk about their preferred work styles with other people on their team. By the way, at Mercari, we call meetings for information sharing “syncs,” which is where the name “Workstyle Sync” comes from.

Ever since the pandemic, it’s not uncommon for members to be working with someone they’ve never met in person before. Given this new normal, Anzu from the Learning Development Team led an initiative to organize a workshop called “What Work Style Do You Prefer?” in September 2021. The aim of this workshop was for members to talk about what they value or prioritize when it comes to their personal work styles. By getting to know each other’s individual personalities and preferences, the idea was that it would help make Mercari a more comfortable workplace for everyone. This workshop was the beginnings of the Workstyle Sync.

The current iteration of the Workstyle Sync started in November 2021. There is a list of 36 questions, which participants go around answering while sharing their preferences and any other information they’d like other members to know.

Below are some examples of the questions used. Everyone is of course free to decide which questions they want to answer.

Questions (excerpt)
・ Time of day when I’m more productive.
・ What kind of environment do you find motivating?
・ When is the best time for you to have meetings?
・ Are you able to speak up in meetings? Or do you prefer the facilitators ask your opinion?
・ What is important to you in your work?
・ How often do you prefer to go to the office (e.g. often / once a week / once a month / as little as possible)?
・ Is there anything you would like to share with the team regarding your family or physical condition?
・ Do you prefer feedback (not only at the time of evaluation, but also in the daily communications) to be sugarcoated, medium, or straightforward?

Something we were mindful of when coming up with these questions was to cover not only things that are visible on the outside, like work hours and meetings, but also topics about people’s attitudes toward work, like what they find important or motivating. This is because there is diversity in the way people approach their work, too. If you start learning about how a person approaches their work, it’s easier to understand and accept their actions and behaviors. Another thing we kept in mind was that the ultimate purpose of the Workstyle Sync is to enable members to enhance their performance—it is not to accommodate every individual’s wants or demands.

──Once you started holding these Workstyle Syncs, how did it go?

@aya:It’s hard to start sharing your own work style with everyone when no one else is doing so. By setting up a dedicated time and space to have these conversations, I think we were able to take some of this pressure away and make it easier for members to openly talk about their various situations and requests.

At first, when I myself was talking about my preferences or requests in these syncs, I kept saying “sorry” without even realizing it. But then, a non-Japanese member from my division said to me, “Don’t be sorry. Everyone has their own individual style, so there’s nothing to feel sorry about.” This was a moment of realization for me, and from then on, I felt more comfortable telling others about my style of working.

@shino: For me, I started going to graduate school at night from April. I’m not able to work when I have classes, but after sharing my situation with my teammates, I don’t feel as guilty or apologetic as before.

@aya:Before, I was feeling sorry, but now I understand that it goes both ways. At Mercari, it’s OK for each of us to share what’s going on in our lives. Now, whenever another member explains their situation or has a request, it doesn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. I’m naturally able to accept it.

@Yuka:Yes! Not needing to feel sorry—I think building that kind of atmosphere is what inclusion is all about. I was also talking about this with Juan, but the Workstyle Sync has allowed members to openly talk about things going on in their lives while also learning about other people’s situations. I think that, naturally, this kind of open dialogue will lead to further conversations about diversity and inclusion, and make it easier for people to talk about topics other than work, too. In this sense, I feel our project has helped boost psychological safety among the teams at Mercari as well.

@shino:The first step is getting an accurate understanding of each other’s situations. If there are members who cannot seem to get on the same page or do not know when and where to consult with other members, these kinds of issues can be resolved through the Workstyle Sync. Here is an example from the IR Team, which Aya is a part of: The IR Team often organizes meetings with investors in Europe, who prefer to have meetings late in the evening Japan time. After Aya came back from childcare leave, her teammates thought it would be in her best interest not to join these meetings, taking into account how she has a child to take care of. However, during the sync, Aya revealed that she was actually worried about this exact thing after giving birth—she does not want to be limited and would like to work with different investors regardless of their location.

@aya:The Workstyle Sync encourages members to think about their most basic thoughts and feelings, which they usually do not get a chance to talk about in their daily tasks, and share them with one another to reach a mutual understanding. This process also brings down any walls that were up between members. This sync has made me feel less hesitant to share what I’m going through to others, and with less of that pressure, I think I’m able to go about my work with much better mental well-being.

@shino:It’s the same as how Mercari approaches Your Choice and Well-being for Performance. Both are meant to help members further enhance their performance.

@Yuka:In a survey we conducted, 100% of respondents said that the sync helped them better understand how their teammates work. It seems that for most of them, it was their first time having a conversation about work style. We got great feedback, including comments like “it helped us build more psychological safety,” “it was great how I was able to learn about other people’s attitudes and feelings toward work, while also getting to know their personal side,” and “we should definitely do these syncs whenever new members join.”

──Did you face any challenges when conducting these Workstyle Syncs?

@Yuka: It was quite challenging involving the entire company and getting everyone on board… Some people did not see how it would directly lead to better results and output, so it was difficult to convince these people to conduct the syncs. However, it’s important to involve all teams—especially the ones that don’t have many chances to talk about things other than work.

Actually, even when the members of this project proposed it to our own teams, some people did not get the point… It was something completely new, so we couldn’t get teams that are busy to try it out. That’s when we started changing our approach—instead of treating it like just another project, we had directors and managers conduct these syncs with one another, and presented the Workstyle Sync as an initiative supported by the company. Shintaro-san tweeted about it, and there was also an article written about it on The Nikkei, so we were gradually able to get more teams to participate. Again, I think the important part is to keep emphasizing that the ultimate purpose of the Workstyle Sync is to enable members to enhance their performance.

@aya:Another challenging thing was figuring out how much information to share in the first sync. Once the sync began, though, I realized that the more I share, the more my teammates will understand me. The more my teammates understand me, the more comfortable I will feel at work, and the better I will be able to perform. Once I realized this positive cycle and saw how accepting everyone was, I felt less afraid to share more about myself.

@shino:It’s hard to establish psychological safety from the very first sync, so it’s important to actively try to make it easier for everyone to speak up. I would often mention to participants that “in order for this sync to work, everyone needs to be willing to respect and listen to each other’s opinions,” and ask them to make a conscious effort to join with an open mind.

──What kind of positive changes did you see after conducting the Workstyle Sync?

@aya:It’s hard to establish psychological safety from the very first sync, so it’s important to actively try to make it easier for everyone to speak up. I would often mention to participants that “in order for this sync to work, everyone needs to be willing to respect and listen to each other’s opinions,” and ask them to make a conscious effort to join with an open mind.

@shino:Personally, through talking about our work styles, I think it has fostered a culture of acceptance and open-mindedness.

@aya: I agree. I see this change within myself, too. I’ve become more flexible, and I’m able to accept other members’ requests with a more open mind.

@shino:Same here. I was so appreciative of how accepting other people were about my personal situation and needs, so I really want to do the same for them.

@aya:There are no hard feelings, because I think everyone is respectful of other people’s work styles and understands that each person is just trying to find what works best for them and their lifestyle.

@Yuka:Also, as a manager, the Workstyle Sync has allowed me to set a precedent for this kind of communication, and show my team that I am always open to hearing about things going on in their life. Compared to before, members are able to share things like, “My pet is sick so I have to take the day off,” or “It’s hard for me to work around this time, because I have to go pick up my kid.”

There is lots of diversity, but the next step is inclusion.

Lastly, from a D&I perspective, what kind of progress do you hope to see Mercari make in the future?

@aya: I personally think Mercari is already a very comfortable place to work at. But at the same time, I know that for someone in a different situation from me, there may still be things that are making it difficult for them to maximize their output. Going forward, I would like to help make Mercari a comfortable workplace for all of its diverse employees, so that everyone can demonstrate their best performance.

@shino:It’d be nice to see Mercari become an example for other companies. I think that if more companies followed our lead on this, the world would be a better place.

@Yuka: If we can build psychological safety and help all members feel included through the Workstyle Sync, I think we will be able to see lots of different opinions and ideas being born at Mercari. Having this kind of diversity of thought will be a big asset for the company when expanding its business globally.

There were various members from different teams collaborating to make this project happen. Below are some comments from the members who couldn’t participate in this interview.

I think Mercari will become an even more diverse organization going forward, with more and more members of different backgrounds. What we have to be mindful of is to make sure our workplace is an inclusive environment for everyone, because I think it can be easy to get swayed by the majority group. For example, when English speakers become the majority, what will happen to the people who can only speak Japanese? Will they be blamed for not studying English on their own and be left behind? The company needs to make it clear what kind of skills are required of employees to perform at a high level and be successful here.
(@haiero Management Strategy Team)

We want to help make Mercari a company that is welcoming and accepting of diverse people and work styles. By making our company a safe and open workplace for all kinds of people, we will have more diverse perspectives and be better equipped to understand the diverse needs of our users. I believe it will also lead to the growth of our business, since it will make the organization more adaptable to change.
(@Juan Diversity & Inclusion Team)

At Mercari, we aim to keep making further progress in D&I with initiatives like the Workstyle Sync. Progress in D&I will without a doubt play an essential role in driving the future growth of Mercari. And, we hope these efforts will not just stop at Mercari—we hope our Workstyle Sync will spread to more companies, in order to help create an inclusive society that allows all kinds of people to unleash their potential.

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