In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on topics as varied as overhauling traditional practices, digitalization, working styles and the issue of widening inequality, experts debated on Sunday changes that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 outbreak, at the annual G1 Global Conference held in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

With the virus having infected over 37 million people and claimed 1 million lives worldwide, many nations have seen their economies ravaged and the public has shifted to a new normal.

Japan has been no exception, its government criticized over being ill-prepared for digitalization as workers have tried to adapt.

“What we are trying to do is to create new value for society and make life more convenient. That’s the goal of our regulatory reforms,” said Taro Kono, minister in charge of regulatory reform, during the conference, which took place at Globis University.

The all-English event included a number of sessions with the primary theme of “Disruptive Evolution Post-COVID-19: Geopolitics, Business and Society,” and featured lawmakers, company executives and experts from business, political and academic fields around the world. The Japan Times was a media partner.

In one of the plenary sessions, Kono said the government was considering making arrangements that would allow all government-related payments to be made online.

For example, people currently have to go to a bank or post office to pay traffic fines, but “that’s not efficient,” the minister said.

Kono also reiterated his intention to ditch the use of hanko seals for government processes, which drew applause from the audience at the event.

There are around 11,000 types of government procedures that require papers to be stamped with hanko seals, but only 820 of them account for more than 99 percent of procedures undertaken. Having examined how many can be eliminated, Kono said that only 35 really need hanko.

“If you get rid of this hanko procedure, the next step would be to get rid of the paperwork. … If you don’t have to put hanko on the paper, you can do everything online,” he said.

Kono’s attempt to terminate the use of hanko in the public sector will likely spread to the business world, where the tradition has provoked controversy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A slew of business people have caught attention with complaints that the requirement for paperwork to be stamped with hanko has hindered telework, with them having to go to their offices in person just to use the seals.

With the health crisis greatly impacting the way people work, changes in working styles were also a hot topic in other sessions.

Some panelists predicted that telework would likely remain the norm for numerous companies, meaning that the role of offices would need to be redefined.

Yuka Shimada, director of human resources and general affairs at Unilever Japan Holdings K.K., said the pandemic hastened a decision by the firm to cut the number of office floors occupied from five to four, as well as conducting major renovations to make the working environment more concept-oriented.

The new office will perform two main roles, facilitating communication among employees to drive more innovation and offering a space where staff are immersed in the company’s culture.

Online video meeting tools may be useful for employee meetings when there is a specific agenda, but they are not really good for prompting informal communication, said Shimada. Ideas for innovation often occur from serendipity, she said, such as while chatting with colleagues.

That’s why the new office should be a place where people can casually mingle regardless of the department to which they belong, she added.

Also, when telework becomes the norm, employees tend to be at home a lot of the time and can feel detached from the company. Therefore, the new office is designed to be a place where they “can feel connected with the Unilever (corporate) culture.”

Some experts warned that telework has increased inequality in the United States for those who don’t have access to computers and the internet, as well as for women who are often expected to take care of children at home.

Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of London-based think tank Chatham House, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating inequality not only on the micro level but also at a macroeconomic level.

He said there had been huge gaps in government spending on stimulus packages between different European countries, with some, such as Germany, offering massive relief measures including loans while spending by others is on a much smaller in scale.

“What that means is that the richest countries in Europe will come out of this crisis stronger, maybe richer, and so the weakest countries in Europe will probably come out of this crisis weaker and poorer,” said Niblett.

“This could happen globally. … We could again see an acceleration or widening of the divides that existed pre-COVID.”

The G1 Global Conference dates back to 2011, when it was first held to discuss national and international challenges after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 that year. G1 stands for “Group of One, Globe is One.”

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