Commentary / Japan

Why not apply 'danshari' to work and life?

People's daily lives appear to be slowly going back to normal now that the COVID-19 state of emergency has been lifted across the country. Schools reopened at the beginning of June, and companies that urged employees to work from home are reviewing and exploring new styles of work as big urban centers brace for a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Are companies going to continue with their new styles of work such as working from home and online meetings, or are they going back to their conventional ways of work?

Some companies such as Hitachi said they will adopt new working styles (such as working three days a week at the office and two days from home) supported by a new evaluation system. NTT, Fujitsu and Pfizer also plan to let their employees work from home. Some tech firms such as Facebook will allow their workers to work from anywhere for the next few years.

The concept of "danshari " — which appears to reflect many people's behavior during the "stay-home" weeks under the state of emergency — should be applied to review and design new styles of work.

This concept was introduced by yoga instructor Mashiro Oki in 1976. It is an application of the yoga training of “dan" (stop unnecessary things from entering our life), ”sha" (discard what we do not need) and “ri" (depart from an obsession with material things). The concept has been popularized by Hideko Yamashita, whose book sold 4 million copies.

During the stay-home period, many people, including myself, embarked on a big home clean-up. Service companies that dispose of large items have been extremely busy. I had to wait for two weeks for my big items (old tables, a golf bag with a few clubs, a suitcase, a humidifier, etc.) to be collected.

Tokyo Cleanup Union said that household garbage during the 10 weeks between Feb. 24 and May 3 increased by 4.9 percent from a year earlier to 337,000 tons — an extraordinary jump. On the other hand, garbage from offices and stores decreased by 25 percent, reflecting the government's request to close or reduce their business hours. The city of Saitama reported that household garbage between April 6 and 18 increased 15 percent year-on-year.

According to a Softbrain Field survey of working women taken in late April, close to 50 percent of the respondents began cleaning up their homes — by far the top item among the things that they began doing under the stay-home request. It appears that people did not only dispose of garbage but also made conscious efforts to review their lifestyles to determine what parts of it were indispensable.

The practice of danshari did not seem to stop with belongings. Some people reportedly applied it to their relationships with spouses, children, elderly parents and friends, as their time allocations changed under the pandemic.

Their relationships with people whom they truly appreciate became more important, while the rest seemed to disappear from their list. Overall, people seem to feel freer than before since they no longer need to follow the same old way of doing things like everybody else, or they no longer care what others say. After my big cleanup over the past several weeks, I felt so light because I had more space in my apartment. My life has become simpler.

Now back to the question of what to continue and what to throw away in our styles of work. According to a survey by Boston Consulting Co., the number of people who want to continue to work from home even after the pandemic is over remains relatively low: around 20 percent of employed workers up to the age of 60 who have families. But another survey by the Japan Management Association shows that close to 80 percent of those who experienced teleworking for the first time during the COVID-19 state of emergency want to continue to work from home.

Surprisingly, many of the some 400 business executives who recently took part in an online seminar indicated that they desired to go back to the lives they had before the pandemic. They did not seem to have practiced danshari during the state of emergency.

People should review their work activities over the past several weeks and think from scratch about what to continue and what to give up by applying danshari. Many people have found online meetings to be efficient and effective, and some have started wondering whether so many face-to-face meetings are needed. A lot of workers appreciate the time they save when they did not have to commute every day on crowded trains.

The new styles of work brought about by the coronavirus state of emergency such as telework and online meetings have given large numbers of people, including business executives who had little prior experience with it, an opportunity to try it firsthand. In a way, the restrictions on business activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a large-scale social experiment involving a vast number of people. It must have given them new perspectives and insights.

Many people have been able, for perhaps the first time, to think and design what they could do under new, unique circumstances. It must have been a great opportunity for some people to depart from their conventional ways and develop creative and imaginative solutions that they never would have dreamed of before. Others may be simply glad they can go back to the “normal” they remember from before the pandemic. Danshari seems to be welcomed by some people, but not by others.

Great challenges lie ahead in applying danshari to styles of work. People need to decide what to stop (such as face-to-face meetings involving many people and no clear agenda), what to discard (numerous paper forms to fill in and approve), and what to depart from (the mass recruiting of new graduates, and so on).

Carrying out danshari for styles of work requires the implementation of technological infrastructure such as a fast and reliable WiFi network, and the reskilling of people. The traditional evaluation system for workers must be reviewed and a new system implemented to reflect changes in the ways of work.

That requires a major transformation of various aspects of organizations and society. If the review and implementation of this transformation are postponed, the momentum will be lost — as was the case with many other reforms that were discussed but not put into practice. Now is the time to take a step forward toward a major transformation. This is a rare, and possibly the last, opportunity that organizations in Japan can finally recreate themselves.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and is an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.

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