Business | FOCUS

Good time for a 'workation' but is Japan Inc. ready?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

The recent expansion of remote work in Japan following the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the government with ammunition to push for an even more radical working style previously thought all but incompatible with Japan Inc: the so-called “workation.”

Workation — a portmanteau of “work” and “vacation” — abruptly made headlines Monday when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga mentioned the term during a government tourism strategy meeting as a way to reinvigorate the virus-hit sector.

The word, alternately spelled “workcation,” is a largely alien concept in Japan that has emerged only in the last couple of years, attracting the attention of a smattering of companies and municipalities, such as Japan Airlines Co. and Wakayama Prefecture.

Similar to the concept of digital nomads, it is typically understood to be a hybrid activity in which employees telecommute from hotels, resorts and other destinations that allow them to escape the mundane reality of everyday life.

The Japan Tourism Agency said it was looking into the concept even before the pandemic. But Suga’s unexpected mention of the term Monday, coming hot on the heels of the recent outcry over the controversial Go To Travel campaign, has catapulted it into the public spotlight, stoking concerns it could blur the line between work and personal life to the point of encouraging overwork.

Proponents, however, say workation has less to do with promoting tourism than fostering a more flexible work style, although they agree that the peer pressure to work physically from an office and lingering skepticism toward telework suggest there is a long way to go before such a practice can take hold in Japan.

The JTA says workation is one of the concepts it has in recent years been promoting as a way to tap into latent demand for tourism, along with similar ideas such as “bleisure,” a combination of the words business and leisure, and satellite offices.

Underlying its push for these flexible working styles has been a desire to “stagger” demand for travel, agency official Hokuto Asano says.

“Many people in Japan tend to go on trips at specific periods during the year, such as during the summer or year-end holidays. This concentration of demand has led to soaring ticket prices or simply prevented many people from booking flights, risking the plateauing of appetites for travel,” Asano says.

But for better or worse, the tourism agency’s push to encourage more people to travel on normal weekdays in lieu of traditional holidays has gained momentum thanks to the coronavirus, which has allowed many to work remotely and enjoy a taste of being away from office on weekdays, Asano says. While previously frowned upon, the notion of traveling on weekdays also now sits much better with the public as crowds can be avoided that way, further making the idea of workation palatable, the official added.

One of the pioneers of workation in Japan is JAL, which launched the system in fiscal 2017, attracting 34 participants in July and August that year. The airline said it believed its introduction created the possibility of a more flexible work style, allowing employees to go on personal trips even if they had work meetings scheduled in the middle of their itinerary, according to an internal affairs ministry report.

Still, the workation is not something that will likely take off immediately in Japan, observers say. It may also be feasible for only a small cohort of individuals, including freelancers and corporate executives who have some discretion over the way they work, they say.

Workation essentially involves employees working anywhere they want, unsupervised, and is therefore a far more radical concept than telework, which, in Japan at least, typically appears predicated on the tacit understanding that they are desk-bound at their own homes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It would also raise a raft of thorny labor questions, such as whether employees should use their paid holidays to adopt such a hybrid working style, whether or how much their costs for travel should be shouldered by companies and whether workers’ compensation insurance would apply to any injuries incurred by those on workation.

Marketing consultant Hideki Ojima says workations give him an opportunity to escape from a mundane work life, which in turn inspires him to be more productive. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI OJIMA
Marketing consultant Hideki Ojima says workations give him an opportunity to escape from a mundane work life, which in turn inspires him to be more productive. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI OJIMA

A long-term practitioner of workation himself, Hideki Ojima, a 51-year-old marketing consultant who advises several firms, says workation is not applicable to everyone, contingent on factors including the nature of jobs, workplace cultures and workers’ financial abilities. The nomadic nature of workation, for example, suggests it is not suitable for professions that require uninterrupted hours of concentration or robust internet connectivity.

Ojima also believes typical Japanese-minded firms are likely to look down on the concept.

“In Japan, it is often strongly expected that you physically show up for work to participate in face-to-face meetings. Things have been slightly changing because of the pandemic, but with telework largely considered to be something you are allowed to do only from home, I think the notion of ‘workation’ in Japan is still controversial,” says Ojima, who had just returned from a 10-day workation trip to Hokkaido that cost him about ¥150,000.

Since employees in the United States and other countries tend to be evaluated based on their performance, the possibility of them taking advantage of workation to “slack off” may be lower than in Japan, where companies often find it difficult to unilaterally terminate workers, Ojima says. This rigid protection enjoyed by such workers could prompt some employers to suspect workation could “give rise to the emergence of freeloaders” and become hesitant about its introduction, he says.

Ojima considers himself one of the lucky few. The digitized nature of his work, as well as the loose relationships with firms he consults for, obviate many of the practical and labor-related hurdles he would otherwise face.

“It’s definitely not for everyone,” he says.

But if all conditions are met, the experience can be rewarding: “When I’m on workation, I get to escape from the mundane and meet people I wouldn’t normally have a chance to interact with, which inspires me, fires up my motivation and ultimately, I hope, boosts my productivity,” he says.

This flexible side of workation, however, has largely been lost to the public, with many taking to social media to interpret Suga’s mention of it as yet another misbegotten drive by the government to salvage the battered tourism sector. The idea that one works while vacationing was also badly received by those who cherish the separation of their work from their private life, spurring concerns it might exacerbate Japan’s endemic problem of karoshi (death from overwork).

In the original context in which it was conceived, “workation wasn’t really about boosting tourism but allowing for a more flexible work style,” Atsushi Tanaka, a professor of tourism studies at the University of Yamanashi, says.

But its unfortunate coincidence with the controversy over the Go To campaign this time around “has created the impression that under such a framework, employees might be somehow ‘forced’ to take vacations for the sake of stimulating tourism, and simultaneously telework from wherever they travel,” he says.

“But workation should rather be considered an option. If you’re the kind of person who goes completely off during your one-week vacation, workation might sound like a horrendous idea and you probably shouldn’t take it up, but depending on how you look at it, it could also be a great idea.”

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