Business / Corporate

Tokyo commuters set for Olympic crush as many firms rule out telework

by Chris Gallagher

Reuters

When Emi Tanimura failed to find a day care slot for her newborn daughter, the need to avoid long periods away from her job at communications firm Sunny Side Up made it necessary to take what is a radical step in Japan; she started working from home.

Now a mother of two, she still works flexible hours — including time at home — as director of the Sunny Side Up president’s office, taking care of both her family responsibilities and her career with the blessing of her boss.

Tanimura is a rare exception to the rule in hard-driven corporate Japan, where employees often feel pressured to put in long hours at the office.

In a Reuters poll, 83 percent of Japanese companies said they don’t currently allow employees to work from home. And 73 percent of the firms said they weren’t considering allowing telework even during this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, according to the survey conducted from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12.

The survey sought responses from 502 companies and received valid answers from 242 for these two questions.

“To be honest, at first I felt sorry because everyone was working in the office and only I was at home,” Tanimura said at the company’s headquarters, just over a five-minute walk from the new National Stadium, the main venue for the Olympics. “But I was being evaluated in terms of whether I achieved results … my performance didn’t decline.”

The aversion to allowing staff to work from home is unwelcome news for the government, which wants companies to let their employees telecommute during the Olympics to make travel easier for participants and spectators on Tokyo’s notoriously packed trains and roadways.

It also points to a potential headache amid growing concern about the coronavirus epidemic that had killed nearly 1,800 in mainland China as of Monday and has spread to a number of countries in Asia, including Japan.

While companies elsewhere are drawing up contingency plans with large portions of staff working from home in a bid to contain the virus, most Japanese firms would have to implement radical changes to follow suit.

The push to encourage working from home resonates with a broader campaign by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government urging firms to offer more flexible working hours, aimed at making it easier for women with children to take up jobs. The nation is battling a severe labor shortage because of its rapidly graying population.

Parissa Haghirian, a professor of international management at Sophia University in Tokyo, said she wasn’t surprised by the survey results because of structural issues found in traditional white-collar Japanese offices that favor hiring workers with general skill sets, rather than specialists, who are moved between divisions every few years.

Haghirian said the switching of roles leaves general workers needing more collective support. Work processes are also not as clearly defined and documented as in Western companies, making it harder to work independently. A culture accustomed to group interaction plays a part.

“You have this structure where people are always there (in the workplace) and do everything together. That strongly affects how people see work and do their work,” Haghirian said. “It’s very difficult to change that.”

To be sure, some survey respondents said they are not considering introducing telework during the Olympics because their businesses require them to be in physical locations — such as retail stores — or they are not based in Tokyo.

But others said they simply do not have a flexible-work policy in place, or do not have technology prepared to allow people to work remotely.

“We don’t have any telework know-how,” a manager at a machinery maker said in response to the survey.

Still, some early adopters are bucking the trend.

Staffing services firm Pasona implemented a flexible-work program in 2017, offering the option to telecommute from home or a satellite office to roughly 10,000 group employees.

Employees receive a laptop that requires fingerprint authentication, and must take an online training course and pass a test in order to be eligible, said Akiko Hosokawa, general manager of Pasona’s human resources division.

Pasona is still considering specifics for the Olympics, Hosokawa said. The company is currently urging employees worried about the coronavirus to take advantage of off-peak commuting rather than traveling during rush hour, she said.

Elsewhere, companies including drinks giant Asahi Group Holdings and tech conglomerate Fujitsu said they would encourage employees to telecommute during the Olympics to avoid travel to the office.

And Sunny Side Up said employees like Tanimura will be telecommuting during the entire Olympic and Paralympic periods because of the firm’s location close to the stadium.

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