The psychological effects of the Tohoku disasters continue to spread far beyond the areas that were directly affected by the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. In the wake of these catastrophic events, individuals throughout Japan have been forced to reflect upon their lifestyles. Companies, too, have begun to rethink their operations and consider alternatives to their business-as-usual practices.
Among the changes taking place at companies are those involving working hours and use of office space. Several companies in Tokyo, including telecommunications company KDDI and pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer Japan, have introduced flextime and telecommuting, as the practice of working from home is known That change was initially motivated by the need to save energy, but employees, as well as management, have begun to see these changes as improvements in the work-life balance — perhaps permanent ones.
Since the March 11 disasters, the increase in working at home via the Internet has been significant. A survey in June by NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting found that companies allowing people to work from home jumped to 20 percent, from the prequake 14 percent. Among foreign companies, 45 percent allow their employees to telecommute. About 40 percent of the workforce at KDDI’s Tokyo head office reportedly telecommute. That may not be a workplace revolution yet, but it is a major shift in priorities.
Flexibility and efficiency have long been buzzwords in managerial circles, but were considered difficult to introduce at Japanese workplaces. The temporary post-quake necessity of managers letting younger employees return home early so they can spend more time caring for their families, including picking up their children from daycare or school, is starting to become a more substantial set of changes.
The issue of labor productivity, though, will continue to be challenging. Managing to finish work tasks in shorter hours can put pressure and stress on workers. However, telework from home can also reduce the stress of excessive overtime, long commutes and a sense of helplessness about one’s life schedule. Finding new ways of working that improve employees’ living conditions and still meet high standards can be found.
Those people in Japan who were lucky enough to not be directly affected by the Tohoku disasters have had the chance to reconsider how they work and live. For many people, the past Japanese values of intense working conditions and an affluent lifestyle no longer seem so appealing as they once did. These first tentative steps are welcome, but more positive changes in lifestyles and workplaces must continue to be considered and implemented.
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