Commentary / Japan

Could even a missile alert stop Japanese from going to the office?

Despite cultural resistance, telework could improve our work-life balance

by Toko Shirakawa

Special To The Japan Times

A recent Twitter message urging employees of a company to come to the office as usual — on the morning North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan — drew spirited responses from a lot of people. Meanwhile, it’s a common sight to see salaried workers waiting patiently in train stations to go to work even when public transportation is paralyzed by an oncoming typhoon. Many people seem to think they have to go to work no matter what.

One of my overseas friends says that Japanese are a hard-working people — and is curious why they can’t work at home. A friend who lives in another Asian country was “working from home” while she stayed in Japan for about a month.

Telecommuting — or teleworking or remote-working, in which people work without being constrained by place or time — is still not widespread in Japan. In the United States, 40 percent of workers are said to have adopted this style, at least partially, with the ratio rising in accordance with their job skills. As of last year, only 13.3 percent of Japanese companies allowed their employees to telecommute. Even where the system is introduced, many consider telecommuting as a special way of work reserved for those who need to work from home as they raise their children or care for ailing relatives. A mere 2.7 percent of the nation’s total labor force telecommutes at least once a week.

Why is telecommuting not more widespread in Japan? Riding on the wave of the government’s campaign for “work-style reforms,” more companies are in fact introducing such a system. However, hurdles must be overcome before larger numbers of people will be telecommuting on a regular basis.

The first hurdle is that company employees — both managers and their staff — are suspicious of what would happen when workers start telecommuting. Managers are suspicious that the telecommuters, away from their watchful eyes, may not be working hard enough. The telecommuters, meanwhile, are worried that their evaluations by their managers may suffer if they’re absent from the office. Both managers and their subordinates feel jittery unless they are working in the presence of each other.

How do you persuade these people to accept the system? Some companies effectively force the system on to their employees — by getting the workers to experience telecommuting, starting with senior managers, at a pace of about twice a month. That way, managers will realize the benefits, such as being able to concentrate because they don’t have to answer phone calls all the time. Many people hesitate to telecommute without knowing its good points, so it’s important to somehow get them to experience it. Once they have learned the benefits of telecommuting, many come to feel they can’t work without the system.

The next hurdle lies in the family. Human resources managers of companies that have introduced telecommuting quote their employees as saying their wives complain they are staying at home when they should be out working. Japan’s housing situation being what it is, few people have a study of their own; many telecommuters will likely end up doing their job from the dining table.

Young male workers say their wives tell them not to stay home during normal work hours because their presence is an obstacle to raising the kids. By the way, it is widely known that time spent by Japanese males on raising children and doing household chores is far short of the international average. Among couples with a child younger than 6 years old, men spend a mere 67 minutes a day on such tasks, whereas women spend six times that amount. The figure for Japanese males is about one-fifth the average in the United States and the lowest among rich industrialized economies. These are only averages — some data show that 70 percent of Japanese mothers effectively raise their children all by themselves.

Many Japanese maintain a strong sense of a gender-based division of labor. Husbands work outside and wives stay at home, which means that the house is the wife’s territory during daytime hours. Many husbands feel they have no space of their own if they don’t go to the office for work. To solve this problem, HR sections can rent a co-working space where employees can telework close to home. One company spends nearly ¥2 million a month renting such facilities.

The third hurdle is the concern that by working from home and unfettered by work-hour limits, employees might end up toiling even longer. A study by Recruit Works Institute found no confirmed cases where telecommuting has resulted in extending employees’ work hours. But telecommuting does result in substantially reducing the time spent commuting. Among couples where both members have jobs, we hear many wives say that they cannot possibly ask their husband — who typically comes home around midnight every day after nearly two hours of commuting each way — to help with raising the children. But the wives themselves are exhausted as well, having to care for their children all alone. If that two-hour daily commute — four hours in total — is slashed even once a week, the likely result would be fairly positive in terms of the husband’s health and the family’s child-rearing.

The aforementioned study showed that male telecommuters spend an average of 32.1 minutes more time with their children and doing household chores than those who do not. Work-style reforms can mean reforming the way people spend their lives.

In addition to correcting the excessively long hours put in by many company employees, telecommuting can be a powerful tool to help working mothers continue with their jobs after childbirth. The ratio of Japanese women who go back to their jobs after giving birth barely tops 50 percent — meaning that the remaining half quit to temporarily devote their time to child-rearing.

At one small company, a female worker who was fluent in English and responsible for the firm’s overseas business said she wanted to quit because she was giving birth and had to move to a new place — which would be a two-hour drive from the company. There was nobody who could take her place, and the company made arrangements so she could work from home. Since that saved the two-hour drive, the employee was able to keep working full time. When a food company introduced telecommuting, many of the mothers employed there wanted to shorten the period in which they work reduced shifts after returning from maternity leave.

Reducing corporate employees’ long work hours and introducing telecommuting will be essential in keeping women from having to quit their jobs to raise children or care for ailing relatives, and help more women stay on their career path and take up responsible positions.

Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.

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