January 19, 2021
In Japan, there has been a long-held workplace culture where long hours in the office are perceived as necessary for business success. Grueling and demanding office hours were the norm, as there was a belief that work happens exclusively in the workplace; those not physically present were made to feel guilty. This culture was coupled with a general lack of access to laptops and strict security protocols – creating an environment not conducive to telework. Naohiro Yashiro, a professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, has stated that Japanese employers struggle to evaluate and assess workers appropriately, often evaluating workers exclusively on the number of hours worked.
The current pandemic thrust the world into a telecommuting culture, as a necessity to continue business operations in the midst of lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing requirements. This is coinciding with a large cultural shift taking place in Japan with the government recently announcing that is urging companies to significantly increase telework and embracing flexible work arrangements. In his announcement, Japan’s Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura requested businesses to cut the number of commuting workers by 70% with alternatives like teleworking. Companies are also asked to not have their staff work beyond 8pm, unless there is a special circumstance or exceptions.
While this current urging by the government to encourage telecommuting is in the context of Tokyo’s latest state of emergency in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases, it is not without precedent. Previously, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged more flexible work arrangements to make it easier for women with children to hold employment; recruit and retain talent amid a labor shortage; and improve productivity among their significant aging population.
Some Japanese companies turned to teleworking early in the pandemic, breaking their long-standing cultural taboo. With schools forced to shut down in response to the outbreak, millions of parents needed to work from home. However, according to the government more is needed:
According to a survey conducted by Persol Research and Consulting in July 2020, 71% of respondents said their firms would allow employees to telework if the government declared a state of emergency. However, according to Yuji Kobayashi, principal researcher at Persol, many companies leave the decision regarding whether to telework up to their employees.Even as COVID-19 forces employers and employees in Japan to accept the reality of remote work, not all organizations, or individuals, are prepared or properly equipped. Despite government encouragement, it may take awhile for a more flexible work structure to become a normal, acceptable sustainable business model in the region.
What Should Employers Do?
- Review your company’s telework policy. Don’t have one? Consider creating one.
- Actively encourage telework. Knowing there is cultural reticence, ensure that there is clear messaging from leadership, and managers to promote telework. Some companies such as Panasonic, NEC, Fujitsu Ltd., Nomura Holdings Inc. and Mitsubishi mandated or recommended remote work for tens of thousands of employees.
- Promote flexibility. In the event employees are unable to work from home, facilitate that they arrive/ depart for work during off-peak hours.
- Communicate the importance of pandemic safety. Citing local state of emergency, restrictions or safety protocols, reinforce that telework, supports public health measures to reduce transmissions.
- Focus on productivity versus locality. Ensure that employees understand they are being measured not based on number of hours physically present in an office, but rather on the quality of work, and ability to successfully meet expectations.
- Provide tips on working effectively at home. Recognizing that this is still a new environment for many, offer suggestions on workspace configuration, as well as the importance of work/life separation to avoid the risk of always being “on”.
- Provide training to managers. Often a manager’s lack of ability in leading a remote team is a deterrent to telework. Train mangers on how to manage a remote team, sustain engagement, and adapt their style as needed.
For more guidance on how to create a successful telework culture at your organization see the Business Group's Telework and Well-being Integration Guide, as well as a number of resources on the right.
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