As pandemic drags on, Japan getting comfortable with new work styles

Noriyuki Suzuki

Tokyo: The coronavirus pandemic has prompted Japan Inc to embrace more flexibility in work styles but has also changed how employees see their jobs.

Working remotely from home and taking online meetings have become the main ways to reduce human contact and infection risks.

The forced transition coincided with Japan’s embryonic efforts in recent years to reform work in a country known for its rigid corporate culture and excessive office hours. Female participation in the labor market, especially for women in their 30s and 40s, has been on the rise.

However, the jury looks still to be out on whether a series of pandemic-induced changes in the workplace are here to stay or will end up being a fad that fades along with the health crisis, experts say.
“It was perplexing at first, but for someone like me who is juggling work and raising kids, remote work is a good option,” said
Mariko Oya, a mother of sons aged 2 and 4.
Oya, 37, returned to work this spring during the pandemic after taking a year and a half off from her marketing job to give birth to her second child.

She would spend over two total hours commuting every day but now she rarely goes to the office, doing most of her work online at home. She also uses a shared office in her neighborhood once or twice a week when she needs to shut out distractions and zero in her focus.

“Before remote work was an option, I thought I could only work a little as I had to spend more time taking care of my kids,” Oya said. “The big part of working from home is that I can get involved in a big project but I can spend time with my family, which gives me the right balance of mind.”

She is on Kirin’s marketing team for the “Gogo no Kocha” (Afternoon Tea) brand, conducting market research and devising strategies to boost the appeal of its products.

Remote work has given her the freedom to choose when to work as her company allows flexible work hours. She can use part of her lunchtime to do housework or prepare dinner before she or her husband picks up their sons from nursery school.
Kirin Holdings Co, the parent company of the Japanese beverage firm, has unveiled a series of steps to promote diverse work styles. It has removed a cap on the number of remote work days allowed and employees can receive 3,000 yen a month to pay for electricity and other costs if they regularly work from home three or more days a week.
Despite a host of perceived merits, there are also challenges.

The possibility of feeling “isolated” or “alone” increases when working from home, Oya said. She is making it a point of setting one-on-one online meetings with her team leader regularly to share her issues and concerns.
The impact on productivity is another issue of concern.

Japan has been known for its relatively low labor productivity among major industrialized nations.
A recent survey by Oracle Corp Japan showed 15 percent of employees and managers — the lowest among the 11 nations covered — responded that productivity rose due to remote work whereas 46 percent said it dropped.

Some 34 percent saw a reduction in work hours and 21 percent reported an increase, according to the survey targeting over 12,000 people, including corporate executives in countries such as Britain, China, Germany, India, South Korea and the United States. A total of 1,000 people were surveyed in Japan.

“Teleworking is a plus for improving the work-life balance and will certainly become a legacy of the pandemic response if the situation continues,” said Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, who also works from home an average three days a week.
“It’s obvious, though, that teleworking is suitable for white-collar jobs but is difficult to adopt for smaller firms. Not everything will stay,” Hoshino added.

According to a September-October survey by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 53.1 percent of some 1,000 mostly small and midsize companies said they use teleworking, down from 67.3 percent in the previous survey between May and June, right after Japan was hit by its initial wave of coronavirus infections.
Of the firms that have tried teleworking, progress in work style reform ranked first as an outcome.

If Japanese companies are serious about reform, however, they need to go further than adopting teleworking, Hoshino said. “More companies should start allowing employees to take side jobs, for instance. This will leave a big impact,” he said, noting that the labor market will be more flexible.

It may take time for such changes to occur, but the list of companies adapting to new work styles is gradually growing. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September, has made digitalization one of his key growth strategies.
Hitachi Ltd plans to place work from home as a standard from April and abolish the use of hanko seals on internal documents by March 2022.

Traditional Japanese hanko stamps, used to authenticate contracts and other documents, were thrust into the spotlight as a bottleneck to remote work as many complained that they had to physically go to their office just because of the custom.
Fujitsu Ltd is aiming to halve the total floor space of its offices by March 2023 as more employees work from home.

Oya remembers it was not until her husband also started working from home that he agreed to help her with housework. Looking ahead, she believes remote work will continue to be part of her everyday life.
“What matters is not where you are for work but how you work. That I believe would be the kind of work style from now,” Oya said.