Japan Vs. Teleworking During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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  • by Zoria Petkoska

    The Novel Coronavirus pandemic is disrupting every facet of life around the globe, and humanity is scrambling to react and adapt our fragile systems. Japan is behind countries like its neighbours China and South Korea, as well as countries in Europe, both in covid-19 cases but also in taking measures to contain it, mitigate it and ‘flatten the curve’.

    Japan did close all schools for a month, and many tourists attractions, museums, theme parks and events decided to close temporarily (https://jpninfo.com/191707 here’s a list, occasionally updated). After much deliberation, even the 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021, prompting the Tokyo Governor to ask Tokyo residents to stay home as much as they can. There have also been visa annulments and travel bans rolled out.

    One of the first and most helpful actions to lessen the crowds was the permission to work from home, also known as ‘teleworking’ or ‘remote work’. The Japanese government urged all companies who could to allow teleworking back in the beginning of March, and even JR East followed with in-train announcements with the same message.

    According to Kyodo News, around 13% of the Japanese workforce now works from home as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Many companies that have been thinking about it, had to make it happen after the Olympics were postponed on March 25th, 2020.

    Persol Research and Consulting Co. conducted an online survey from March 9 to 15, with about 21 000 responses from company employees. It found that 33.7 percent of those NOT engaging in telecommuting would like to do so, but are either not allowed or not able to because of the nature of their work or the inability of the system to support teleworking.

    So, after almost a full month, how is the most overworked and inflexible working culture country doing in these times of teleworking?

    How does Teleworking Help in a Pandemic?

    The most effective ways to stop the spread of infections involve ‘social distancing’ (staying physically away at least 2 metres from any other person at all times) and avoiding closed spaces. An office environment, no matter how spacious, is usually the opposite of that. Office buildings have been criticized before for ‘sick building syndrome’ as the ventilation system circulates old air and usually the windows cannot be opened. In addition, coworkers sit close to each other, elevators are packed, and above all, commuting to work puts everyone at the highest risk of infection.

    Many companies in Japan started allowing staff to telework either all days or a few days a week, as anything helps in reducing the number of people in offices and public transport. Some companies have at least made their start time more flexible, letting people come in at any time, because rush hour is created by people who are required to be in the office at the same time.

    Teleworking is not a Complete Novelty for Japan

    Some companies in Japan were not shocked at all by the Government’s urging, already having policies in place allowing a certain number of teleworking days and having flexible working hours. These companies were the quickest to adapt in the upcoming pandemic, already having the experience, software and systems in place for teleworking. Of course, this depends on the industry, as it is easier for some professions to telework, such as people in marketing, media, design, IT, administration and so on.
    In addition, foreign or multinational companies were also better with teleworking.

    It seems that only traditional Japanese companies were either stubbornly not allowing teleworking, or trying to limit it. This is inextricably linked to Japan’s notorious working culture of needlessly long hours and meetings, and being seen at your desk more important than the work you’ve done.

    On the other hand, this has given a push to many employees to take that teleworking chance when offered, and to companies to implement it. Partly working from home was much talked about in the Japanese media, mostly with the hope to give parents more time with their children. When the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was announced, there was again much talk of remote work and at least flexible morning start time, in order to lessen the rush hour and train congestion. There have also been policies to limit overtime work, such as the failed Premium Friday Government initiative to let employees leave work at 3 pm every last Friday of the month. Maybe the threat of disease and being a considerate citizen for staying at home will help people telework without guilt or shame.

    What do Japanese Companies and Teleworking Employees Think about this?

    During March 2020 with more and more companies and employees trying out teleworking, there have also been surveys conducted to see the response of workers. On the companies’ side they now have to provide computers, pocket wifi, VPN codes, secure access to servers, special teleworking software and so on, while workers need to rethink their homes and carve out a working space. They also need to think about efficient and healthy meals, without leaving the house a lot or for prolonged time.

    This teleworking is different that usual, as the pandemic prevents people from working in a cafe, library or co-working space, where they could also have meals and drinks, meet other people and just have a change of scenery.

    Japanese Internet provider Biglobe conducted a survey about the positive and negative aspects of teleworking with people who have been teleworking at least once a week in the course of March 2020, gathering about 1,000 responses from men and women aged 20-69. (Survey results in Japanese https://www.biglobe.co.jp/pressroom/info/2020/03/200326-1 )

    Unsurprisingly, the survey found that 63.8 percent of the respondents think the best aspect of working from home is avoiding the risk of contracting the virus. The same percentage (almost, 63.7 percent) also think that not commuting reduces stress and opens up more free time. On the list of good points cited by Japanese teleworkers are also: easier to concentrate on work at home, no pointless long meetings, more efficiency, more mental/physical energy and more time with family.

    However, nothing is perfect, so the respondents also mentioned some downsides to working from home. The top complaint (29.3 percent) was the problem with the small size of Japanese apartments that makes having a home office difficult. Unlike respondents who concentrate better at home, many other find it harder to concentrate at home. Some people were bothered by the delay in response from coworkers, and a chunk of people are feeling very anxious that they need to have video conference calls and coworkers seeing parts of their home. Finally, many are reporting stress from being cooped up in the same place, but there’s also the pandemic to blame for that. Pre-pandemic teleworkers have successfully worked in cafes or co-working spaces without any major problems.

    All in all, it seems the positives outweigh the negatives. This forced teleworking helps people see if the arrangement is good for them personally or their type of work, as well hopefully showing companies they should not be afraid of this. Even after the pandemic, occasional teleworking can help with train congestion, save the company commute expenses, and improve overall and mental and physical health.

    *Featured Image from AC photo
    : AC photo/