The government has been actively promoting telecommuting, touting its many merits from easing traffic congestion and enhancing disaster preparedness to helping recruit and retain talent amid Japan’s chronic labor shortage.
Yet it seems there is a long way to go before large numbers of employees will be allowed to take advantage of the new work style, primarily because of Japanese corporate culture.
A survey of companies with 100 or more employees conducted by the internal affairs ministry found that the acceptance rate increased 5.2 percent in 2018 compared with the year before.
But the overall acceptance rate was still a paltry 19.1 percent, and only 8.5 percent of the workers surveyed said they have actually used the system, a modest improvement from 6.4 percent in 2017.
It is far from the government’s target of seeing telework introduced at 34.5 percent of companies by the end of this year.
“One factor preventing the spread of teleworking is psychological,” said Haruka Kazama, a senior economist at the Mizuho Research Institute. “The corporate culture needs to be more adaptive to flexible working styles and create an atmosphere where employees can feel at ease in the system.”
In addition to the goal of reducing the concentration of commuters in major cities, such as Tokyo during this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics, the government has been pushing for expansion of the new work style to address Japan’s notoriously long office hours and improve productivity despite an aging population.
Officials have said the need is greater for telecommuting when natural disasters strike, since people would still be able to work if public transit networks are knocked out of commission.
Analysts said Japanese companies tend to believe their operations are not suited for work from home or other telecommuting arrangements, and thus are blind to the potential benefits.
But for some companies, remote work has become a normal part of daily life.
One of them is seasoning and food company Ajinomoto Co., where around 90 percent of its 3,400 employees used the system for an average of about five days a month in the business year through March 2019.
“Teleworking is spreading fast in our company because it was our bosses who first started it,” said Takaaki Fukunaga, a manager in Ajinomoto’s human resources department.
Ajinomoto invested ¥2 billion in 2017 on telecommuting, including to equip employees with smartphones and laptop computers.
“For employees it was hard psychologically to do remote work when bosses were not doing it, and for bosses it was difficult to allow employees’ telework when they had no experience of it. They had to check in advance that teleworking works,” Fukunaga said.
He said the company’s rules have been improved to make telecommuting easier, such as allowing notification a mere one day in advance, or expanding permitted usage from once to four times a week.
“I use teleworking because there are some types of work I can better concentrate on when working alone at home, like making documents,” said Misato Nakamura, an Ajinomoto employee. “But for the type of work required for discussions and collaborations, I do it in the office. So I try to design my work to enhance overall productivity.
“As my department has face-to-face meetings twice a month and uses instant-messaging voice and chat programs, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on in-person communications. There are also off-the-job functions and drinking sessions that I can attend.”
Ricoh Co. has said it will close its headquarters in Tokyo during the Olympics and allow 2,000 employees to work from home.
The maker of office equipment expanded its telework system in April 2018 to cover all of its 18,240 employees. Around 13,000 of them use it an average of more than 16 days a month, Ricoh said.
Compared with fiscal 2016, the company said employees worked an average of 97 fewer hours during the 2018 business year, while group sales rose nearly 10 percent to ¥669.9 billion.
“The top management’s commitment helped spread telecommuting. Yet there have been side effects such as reduced communication due to fewer face-to-face meetings,” said Yuji Yamada, a senior human resources official at Ricoh.
“Also, as remote work prompts concentrated and efficient work, we have seen cases where younger people have become reluctant to ask for advice even to a person sitting next to him or her,” he said. “As a countermeasure, we deliberately promote communications, while pushing telework.”
Ryoko Kodama, the head of Ricoh’s human resources department, added that “for collaborations and active communications, we’ve been using cafe-style satellite offices with open spaces, for example.”
A number of firms also use monitoring programs to track what home-based workers are doing online, allowing managers to see how they are spending time while on a task.
“As we have an online shared scheduler with each employee entering their work plans, it’s obvious when someone is not engaged in work or not producing outcomes,” Ajinomoto’s Fukunaga said. “Actually it’s easier than before to track what my employees are doing.”
A transport ministry survey released in 2018 suggests that whether telecommuting has caught on depends on the sector. The ratio of introduction was around 30 percent in the information and communications, research and consultancy industries, but less than 10 percent in the hotel, restaurant, health care and entertainment sectors.
However, Mizuho Research Institute’s Kazama said: “Regardless of the sector there should be work that can be conducted at home, such as paperwork and inputting data. Telework is possible if a company organizes, clarifies and breaks down work that can be carried out remotely.”
Being aware that Japanese corporate culture tends to resist change, she suggests creating “the right to telework” as a last resort to get companies onboard.
“It could be a strong whip because ultimately Japanese corporate culture may only change if there is strict legislation or a system,” Kazama said.
The institute estimates that if the ratio of teleworkers at each company accounts for 15.4 percent of its total workforce in line with the government’s 2020 target, Japan’s gross domestic product would be pushed up by some ¥430 billion, assuming the time they spend commuting is shifted to labor.
The institute says the economic benefits could be even greater if telecommuting results in expanding the labor pool to include people like housewives and those with disabilities who find it difficult to commute.