Telework During Coronavirus Crisis: How Working Style is Changing in Japan

Background of Coronavirus Situation   

Early this year, a while after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, the world started to feel the impact of the deadly disease on people’s social life, jobs and the economy. Countries then decided to declare a state of emergency and imposed lockdown measures, requesting people to work from home while practicing social distancing to slow down the spread of the virus. 

Except many lives that are being lost everyday, the world’s economy has been hugely impacted as many businesses were forced to close down, causing that some current employees lost their jobs and a few jobs offered to new graduates were cancelled in most countries, without excluding developed nations like Japan. 

Situation of Telework in Japan: How is Professional Life Impacted 

The state of emergency declared in April 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis has caused about 13% (as of April) of employees to work from home, as part of measures to prevent the further spread of coronavirus. However, even though Japan is known for its technology advancement, some companies still struggle from adapting this new working style. 

Concretely, Nikkei Asian Review published an article early April discussing that: “Japanese business practice of signing off on documents with a personal seal poses an obstacle in efforts to adopt telecommuting amid the coronavirus pandemic”. The perfect illustration is that soon after the state of emergency was announced, most Japanese employees had to go to work the following day to get permission to work home from their bosses, using “Hanko” (a seal bearing the name of an individual or an organization that serves as signature in official and business transactions), while others needed only to use email for the same purpose. A few reasons could explain this situation: lack of remote work uptake including security concerns, reams of paperwork, peer pressure and lack of necessary digital infrastructure.

However, it is important to note that a survey carried out by the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry demonstrated that  54.7% of major corporations possessing a capital of ¥300 million (roughly $2.8 million) or more are already implementing telework, according to Japan Times. This study depicts  that the situation could be quite similar in other major regions.

Despite this unprecedented situation, some companies have shown gestures of gratitude towards their employees, especially those who still had to keep going to office or have meeting clients during these dangerous times, by setting up “Coronavirus Countermeasure Support Funds”. Japan Today published in March an article citing a Tokyo employee who posted on his social media the “Thank-you Note and ¥30,000 in cash” he received from his company to buy masks, hand sanitizers and groceries to remain healthy or to just rent movies and have a good time at home. This type of compensation is surely to be encouraged as it contributes to supporting employees’ physical, mental and emotional health by showing them appreciation for putting themselves in danger. 

In light of the above, the challenging situation has caused stress among most office workers and definitely has had an impact on their productivity level. 

Future Perspectives: How Working Style Will Change

In the capital city – Tokyo alone, the ratio of telecommuting companies skyrocketed to 63% in April from 24% in March according to a survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, as the coronavirus continues to spread. This is a sign that from now on, there would be a major change in the way businesses will be conducted in Japan. 

On a more technical note, work life for many won’t remain the same due to the progressive introduction of remote work tools such as teleconferencing and webinar apps that will allow professional communication and networking, while keeping employees productive, keep learning and eventually finding new business partners. This could probably be the biggest challenge employees will have to continue facing in the future.

Furthermore, in preparation of the next Tokyo Olympics & Paralympics, now postponed for a year due to the current outbreak, it was reported last year that some corporations had already made plans for their staff to work from home a few times per month to ease congestion especially during the morning commute. 

Finally, from the government side, a call for reducing person-to-person contact by 80% was made in the beginning of the pandemic to help contain the virus. Additionally, a public instruction was issued asking officials to revise the long-standing administrative custom of requiring that documents should absolutely be stamped with “hanko” seals.

Concluding Remarks 

There is a conception in Japan that puts a premium on teamwork over individuality. And the fact is that Japan is a country where showing up at work is more important than working remotely. Plus, the Japanese work culture demands constant face-to-face interaction, which partly means to show respect towards coworkers or clients. Therefore, not being in office together would contradict this assertion. 

From this perspective, working from home could be a big cultural shock that most Japanese workers will have to get used to in times of serious contagious diseases. 

Anyways, every cloud has a silver lining! This very popular maxim gives us hope that from this dark situation, there are some lights shed on workers who are concerned about how their professional lives will change when the pandemic is over.