Japanese corporate culture holds back teleworking adoption
The government has actively promoted telecommuting, affirming its many merits from easing road congestion and enhancing disaster preparedness to help recruit and retain talent amid Japan’s chronic shortage of labour.
Nonetheless, there seems to be a long way to go before large numbers of workers can take advantage of the new method of operation, primarily due to Japanese corporate culture.
A survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of businesses with 100 or more workers showed that the acceptance rate rose by 5.2 per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year.
But the overall acceptance rate remained a paltry 19.1 per cent, and only 8.5 per cent of the surveyed workers said they used the system, a modest improvement from 6.4 per cent in 2017.
It is far from the goal of the government to see telework introduced by the end of this year at 34.5 per cent of companies.
“One factor preventing the spread of teleworking is psychological,” said Mizuho Research Institute senior economist Haruka Kazama. “Corporate culture has to be more sensitive to flexible working types and create an atmosphere where workers can feel comfortable in the program.” In addition to the goal of reducing the concentration of traffic in major cities such as Tokyo during the Olympics and Paralympics this summer, the government has been pressing for the introduction of the new style of work to address Japan’s famously long-standing problems.
Officials said the need for telecommuting is greater when natural disasters strike because if public transit networks are knocked out of commission, people would still be able to work.
Analysts said Japanese businesses tend to believe that their activities are not ideal for home work or other telecommuting schemes and are therefore oblivious to potential benefits.
Yet remote work has become a natural part of everyday life for some companies.
One of them is the seasoning and food company Ajinomoto Co., where around 90% of its 3,400 employees used the system in the business year through March 2019 for an average of about five days a month.
“Teleworking in our business is spreading rapidly because it was our superiors who began it first,” said Takaaki Fukunaga, a manager in the human resources department of Ajinomoto.
In 2017, Ajinomoto spent 2 billion yen in telecommuting, including equipping smartphones and laptop computers to workers.
“If bosses didn’t do it, it was mentally uncomfortable for workers to do remote work, and it was problematic for bosses to encourage telework for employees when they did not know of it. They had to test the teleworking functions ahead of time, “said Fukunaga.
He said the rules of the company had been improved to facilitate telecommuting, such as allowing notification one day in advance or expanding permitted use from one to four times a week.
“I use teleworking because there are certain types of work that I can better focus on when working alone at home, such as making documents,” said Ajinomoto employee Misato Nakamura. “But I do it in the workplace for the kind of work needed for conversations and partnerships. So I’m trying to design my work to improve overall productivity.
“As my department has twice a month face-to-face meetings and uses instant messaging programs for voice and chat, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on in-person communication. I can also join off-the-job events and drinking sessions. “Ricoh Co. said during the Olympics it would shut its offices in Tokyo to encourage 2,000 employees to work from home.
In April 2018, the office equipment maker extended the telework system to cover all of its 18,240 employees. Around 13,000 of them use it more than 16 days a month on average, Ricoh said.
The corporation said workers employed a total of 97 fewer hours during the 2018 financial year relative to fiscal 2016, while group sales rose almost 10 per cent to 669.9 billion yen.
“The dedication of the top management led to the proliferation of telecommuting. Nonetheless, as a consequence of less face-to-face sessions, there have been side effects such as decreased contact, “said Yuji Yamada, a senior human resources official at Ricoh.
“We have also seen instances where younger people have become hesitant to seek advice even to a person sitting next to him or her, as remote work demands focused and productive research,” he added. “As a countermeasure, we actively encourage connectivity when resisting telecommunications.” Ryoko Kodama, head of the human resources department at Ricoh, continued that “for partnerships and successful interactions, we used, for example, cafe-style satellite offices with open spaces.” Several firms also use tracking systems to watch what home-based staff do online, allowing them to be monitored.
“Since we have an electronic collaborative scheduler with each employee entering their job schedules, it is evident that someone is not involved in work or does not produce results,” said Fukunaga of Ajinomoto. “In reality, watching what my workers are doing is simpler than before.” A Transport Ministry survey released in 2018 shows that the sector relies on whether telecommuting has been captured. In the knowledge and media, analysis and consulting businesses, the launch ratio was nearly 30%, but less than 10% in the hotel, restaurant, health care and entertainment markets.
Nevertheless, Kazama from the Mizuho Research Institute said: “In light of the business, there should be work that can be done at home, such as documentation and input details. Telecommunications is possible if a company organises, clarifies and breaks down work that can be done remotely. “Being aware that Japanese corporate culture tends to resist change, she suggests creating” telecommunications right “as a last resort to get companies on board.
“It could be a powerful whip because Japanese corporate culture can ultimately change only if there is strict legislation or a system,” Kazama said.
The Institute reports that if each company’s teleworker share accounted for 15.4 per cent of its total workforce under the government’s 2020 goal, Japan’s gross domestic product would be pushed up by some 430 billion yen, given the amount of time they spend commuting to work.
The Institute suggests the economic benefits could be even higher if the effect of telecommuting is to widen the labour pool to include individuals, including homemakers and people with disabilities who find it challenging to travel.