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Japan’s telecommuters work to clear communication hurdles amid government push

Kyodo

Teleworking, a key part of the government’s work-style reform initiative, is slowly evolving as a result of efforts to make up for difficulties in communication among colleagues.

One such effort that is drawing attention is the use of avatar robots to smooth out communication between those clocking in from home and those at the office. A number of companies are trying to adopt various reforms under the initiative, including one firm where all staff members work remotely.

Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp., a subsidiary of telecommunications giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., began using robots called OriHime in April 2016 as part of its efforts to promote teleworking, a policy aimed at allowing employees to continue working while raising children or caring for aging parents.

Using OriHime, remote workers can view their office and communicate with their colleagues. The roughly 20-cm-tall robots, which can be carried around by staff in the office, can attend meetings on behalf of remote employees.

“I can feel the atmosphere in the office and it’s like I’m there,” said a teleworker in his 40s.

An Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry survey found that only 13.3 percent of companies in the nation had introduced telecommuting as of the end of September 2016, while another 3.3 percent were planning to do so. Of the companies not yet on board, 11.3 percent cited communication difficulties as the reason, while an overwhelming 74.2 percent said they have no work that suits the practice, according to the survey, which was released last June.

The ministry said, however, that companies allowing telecommuting were 1.6 times more labor productive than those without the practice.

The government’s reform drive is part of an effort to boost the nation’s productivity and competitiveness amid the rapidly aging and declining population by curbing long working hours and encouraging more women to enter the workforce, while also trying to push legislation to overhaul the wage system.

The adoption of remote working is said to be an important part of the reform because it can relieve employees from commuting and allow them to spend more time with their family.

Unilever Japan K.K. introduced a system in July 2016 allowing employees to choose workplaces and hours on their own. The system has allowed employees to avoid taking rush-hour trains. It also helps them avoid living apart from their spouses due to work.

Mie Takao, 29, is one of the Unilever employees taking advantage of the system, working with colleagues at an office in Tokyo from her home in Nagoya.

“There’s no problem because I can participate in meetings via computer and I have been able to work more efficiently,” Takao said.

Yuka Shimada, an executive at the Japanese unit of the British-Dutch consumer goods company, said employees say the system has helped them become “more positive toward their work.”

“We have changed our mindset to help employees enrich their lives,” she said.

Tokyo-based software developer SonicGarden Inc., where all employees telecommute, has set up a virtual office, allowing staff members to see live feeds of each other on their computers. The virtual office gives the workers “a sense of belonging because we feel as if we are in the same workplace,” said Yoshihito Kuranuki, the company’s president.

Junichi Ito, a 40-year-old SonicGarden employee who works from his home in Nishiwaki, Hyogo Prefecture, said, “I chat with my colleagues on the screen and so I feel no disadvantage.”

Before moving to SonicGarden, Ito spent 2½ hours commuting each day. He can now spend more time with his family and has since become the head of the parent-teacher association at his child’s school.

He said he had been working too much without realizing it and that he “cannot return” to his past life.

Tetsuji Okazaki, an economics history professor at the University of Tokyo, said teleworking is likely to increase aside from places like factories.

“Before the Industrial Revolution, even in the manufacturing industry many workers worked at home under the guidance of wholesalers. We are witnessing a move to return to the previous way of working.”

Noting that improvement in telecommunications and other systems is indispensable for telecommuters to work under the same conditions as in the office, Okazaki said the cost of such improvements could be a hurdle for some companies.