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A key measure in the nation’s second state of emergency, declared by the government for Tokyo and neighboring prefectures to curb rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, is preventing workers from congregating at offices, which is thought to make it more likely for them to go out and dine after hours.

But there’s a big question over whether the government can get businesses to commit to having their employees work from home. The answer may be no.

To limit people’s movement as much as possible, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration aims to reduce the number of workers going to offices by 70%.

“One of the primary measures under the state of emergency this time is to curtail people’s movement to restaurants and bars,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, during a news conference last week. “In that sense, I believe telework will play a major role.”

When the government declared the first state of emergency, which ran from April to May last year with the same 70% reduction goal, the number of commuters decreased by around 60% to 70%, Nishimura said.

In comparison to before the appearance of the novel coronavirus, firms are generally more prepared to allow staff to work from home or outside their offices. But some experts aren’t sure whether companies are willing to move further toward that goal now than they did last spring.

To limit people’s movements as much as possible, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration aims to reduce the number of workers going to offices by 70%. | REUTERS
To limit people’s movements as much as possible, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration aims to reduce the number of workers going to offices by 70%. | REUTERS

A slew of smaller firms are still somewhat hesitant to promoting such working styles, saying they don’t have enough funds to buy new computers or smartphones, or that it reduces work efficiency.

Surveys show that the percentage of workers teleworking declined in November compared to last April when the first state of emergency was issued.

According to polls conducted by Persol Research and Consulting Co. on about 20,000 people, the teleworking rate for Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba was 43.5% last April. The figure for November was 38.5%.

“During the first state of emergency, there were many business operators that (effectively) suspended their operations (at their physical offices)” including those in the restaurant industry, switching to tasks they could do remotely from home, said Yuji Kobayashi, principal researcher at Persol Research and Consulting.

But this time, fewer firms are expected to halt their operations as they are likely to try to minimize the impact on their businesses.

“I don’t think the teleworking rate will exceed that seen last time,” Kobayashi said. The 70% goal is “quite difficult” to achieve, he added.

Also, back in April people were more scared about the unknown and unprecedented virus. That prompted them to take precautions, including working remotely from home. But people now feel they have learned how to lower infection risks, which is likely to discourage some firms from jumping into the teleworking trend.

In another Persol survey conducted in July, which polled 800 respondents in charge of administrative departments in companies, 71.1% said their firms would allow employees to telework if the government declared a state of emergency. But Kobayashi said a lot of companies actually leave the decision over whether to telework to their employees.

“If it is up to individuals’ choice, they are left in this vague space. As a result, the total teleworking rate won’t really go up,” he said.

A slew of smaller firms are still somewhat hesitant to promote teleworking, saying they don’t have enough funds to buy new computers or smartphones and that it reduces work efficiency. | REUTERS
A slew of smaller firms are still somewhat hesitant to promote teleworking, saying they don’t have enough funds to buy new computers or smartphones and that it reduces work efficiency. | REUTERS

For that reason, it is important for corporate management to send a clear message that they are committed to promoting telework, Kobayashi stressed.

More larger companies, meanwhile, are embracing remote working, which was not so common before the health crisis.

For instance, since the last state of emergency, about 70% of Hitachi Ltd.’s employees in Tokyo and the prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba have been working remotely. Under the current state of emergency the firm has asked its employees to telework in principle, saying it plans to increase the rate to 85% or more.

“Large firms face a higher risk of becoming an infection cluster due to the larger number of employees,” whereas the possibility is lower at smaller firms, said Kobayashi. “If that happens at large companies, that would damage their reputation, too.”

Smaller companies, however, seem to be less inclined to allow their workers to work remotely from home.

Takao Yokoyama, an official at the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said smaller firms are likely to face more difficulties in securing infrastructure, such as computers and smartphones, and building the network systems necessary for remote working due to the financial burden.

According to a survey by the chamber in September and October, a lack of hardware and infrastructure was cited by 482 firms not participating in teleworking as the top reason, along with there being no work that can be done remotely.

Since the first state of emergency, the central and local governments have provided subsidies to help companies purchase hardware for teleworking. Tokyo has also extended its offer under the second state of emergency to cover some costs for companies to have some employees work at hotels.

Another online survey conducted in September and October by freee K.K., a Tokyo-based fintech firm, which sought responses from 1,165 workers at small and midsized firms, found 61% said they were not allowed to telework.

More larger companies are embracing remote working, which was not so common before the health crisis. | REUTERS
More larger companies are embracing remote working, which was not so common before the health crisis. | REUTERS

Even among those who are allowed to do so, 24.3% said they went to the office almost every day, mentioning that they needed to check documents from their clients, partners and the public sector as well as handling hanko seals on contracts.

During the first state of emergency, hanko seals drew media attention as the traditional business custom of their use hampered efforts by a raft of workers to work remotely.

In recent months, Taro Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform, has been spearheading efforts to eliminate unnecessary hanko seal procedures in government work, in an apparent aim to drive momentum for such moves among society as a whole.

Yet Yokoyama of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it would probably take more time for companies to ditch hanko customs, as its recent survey also showed that hanko seals were among major challenges for rolling out teleworking practices.

Kobayashi of Persol and Research Consulting said that although smaller firms tend to focus on the short term business outlook, promoting telework will be a plus for them in the long term.

The pandemic has made teleworking a viable option for many companies in Japan, and “a lot of people now want to work at companies that let them engage in telework,” he said.

Even once the health crisis is stamped out, “I am sure that telework will be one of the factors that attracts talent,” said Kobayashi.

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