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To contain COVID-19, Japan urges companies to let employees work from home

The coronavirus outbreak is forcing Japan to examine some of its longest-held aspects of workplace culture, in a country where spending long hours in the office is still regarded as crucial to success.

Authorities have urged companies to break long-standing taboos and encourage their employees to work from home to curb the spread of the virus, and Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s call Thursday to shut down schools across the country will likely force millions of parents into a work-from-home experiment the country’s firms are ill-prepared for.

Panasonic, NEC, and Mitsubishi are among the growing number of firms that have mandated or recommended remote work for tens of thousands of staff. The change is testing the ability of the nation’s companies to embrace a more flexible work style—overturning a workplace culture that dates back decades and values physical presence and endurance of long hours over productivity or efficiency.

“Employers are unable to evaluate workers appropriately, so they put emphasis on length of hours worked. Those who work long hours are rated highly,” Naohiro Yashiro, a professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo, said in an interview. “The failure to promote remote working is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is Japan’s low labor productivity.”

Many firms also force employees to use legally mandated vacation days instead of sick days when they’re ill, which pressures people to come into work even when they are feeling unwell. That presents a challenge for authorities increasingly desperate to prevent the spread of the disease by keeping those who might be infected at home.

“There’s a strong belief that work happens when you’re at the workplace,” said Rochelle Kopp of Japan Intercultural Consulting, who advises and trains Japanese firms. “If you leave, you’re thought of somehow letting down your team. People tend to feel badly or are made to feel guilty if they aren’t physically present.”

Workers Endure

Well before the virus outbreak, face masks were common throughout the year as those with colds forced themselves into the office.

“Even if you cancel public events, it won’t help when there’s a group of people that have to go to work even when they feel unwell,” one Twitter user quipped, pointing to a popular over-the-counter cold drug which promotes itself as the “cold remedy even when time-off is not an option.”

And it’s not just illness that workers are expected to endure—during last summer’s record typhoons, which twice paralyzed public transport in the capital, many workers on social media were vocal about companies that forced them to come to the office instead of seeking shelter.

“There’s a sense of tacit knowledge, that work know-how is embedded in individuals and can’t be replaced,” said Hiroshi Ono, a professor of human resources management at Hitotsubashi University. People think, “‘If I’m not there, things won’t get done.’ Japanese people think that it’s their responsibility. They think if they take time off, they’re causing bother to others.”

Even as the virus forces companies and workers to accept the reality of remote work, many are complaining that that in reality, firms are simply not equipped or prepared to let employees work remotely. Despite government encouragement, the IT infrastructure at many firms isn’t yet able to support remote working.

A survey compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2018 found that fewer that one in five companies had implemented “telework,” as working from home is frequently referred to in Japan, while a Workport poll from August found 90{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of staff had no experience of working remotely.

Lack of access to laptops and strict security protocols not designed for remote work make it difficult for firms to open up to the practice, Kopp said.

“The problem is, it’s not something a lot of companies can just snap their fingers and do,” she said. “I don’t know how many Japanese companies will be able to get anything together quickly, as it’s an IT challenge.”

‘Unintended Merit’

For Japan, the outbreak is also a moment of truth for labor reform measures launched to great fanfare in 2018. Those measures, aimed at combating a decline in the labor force, were designed to make the labor system more flexible and make it easier for those with children or elderly parents to contribute.

With Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike having already called for more companies to set up remote work protocols to alleviate the pressure on rush-hour commutes during the upcoming summer Olympics, the virus outbreak could yet help to spur change.

“Companies’ way of thinking will change,” Showa Women’s University’s Yashiro said. “By being forced into doing it, it has the unintended merit of showing companies that they can in fact do remote work. If these companies increase, it could be a useful strategy during disasters.”

And not everybody is struggling. GMO Internet was the first Japanese company to send its workers home following the outbreak, citing the proximity of its offices to major destinations for tourists from China. So far, management is pleased.

“Looking at these results, I’m seriously thinking about the need for an office at all,” CEO Masatoshi Kumagai tweeted on Feb. 16.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Kumagai—speaking from home—said that the the company had conducted remote work training each year for the past decade or so. “We’ve been in remote work for a month now, but this is a first for us,” he said. “It’s a massive social experiment.”

Kumagai says the company had learned many lessons from the experience so far, and hopes to make use of it in the future.

“There were many things we didn’t initially expect,” he said. “After a month, there are some people who prefer working from home, and others who find it stressful. It really depends on each individual.” Kumagai also sees the experiment as having benefits going forward. 

“Personally, I think the results of this will lead to reduced office costs in the mid-term,” he said. “With a hot desk system, you could increase workers by 20{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} with no increase in office costs if employees work from home once a week.” 

Bic Camera, one of the country’s largest electronics stores, said it saw a 20{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} increase in laptop sales in February, as inquiries around remote working surged.

And some companies are developing novel responses to workers’ ingrained habits. Software developer Asteria said staff with a fever of 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 Fahrenheit) or higher will be forbidden even from working from home, the Sankei reported, and will be considered “in attendance” so that staff with little paid leave don’t have to worry about struggling in to work.

“I think this may ‘turn misfortune into a blessing’,” Hitotsubashi University’s Ono said, referencing a Japanese proverb in describing the decision to close schools. “It’s an opportunity for more people to be at home, for remote work to be pushed forward, for a more flexible lifestyle to progress.”

Many workers have reacted positively to the new normal.

“Working from home is the best! I want to do this forever,” said one engineer on Twitter, citing a superior computer monitor, a lack of wait for the bathrooms, and an absence of meaningless meetings.

But of course for many workers in Japan’s economy, remote work will remain a pipe dream.

“There’s no such thing as remote work for us truck drivers,” said one Twitter user. “If we don’t load up our trucks and drive, there’s no salary for us.”

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