But in Japan, as in other parts of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has forced even the most conservative companies to rethink their way of doing business in a country that is reluctant to accept the idea of working from home.
“I used to shuttle back and forth for an hour, so I’m glad I don’t have to do that right now,” Okada, who is in his late 40s, told The Guardian . “And holding online meetings has not been a problem. “
Okada, an employee of a large Tokyo company, started working at home two days a week from the end of February, but has been working full-time remotely since the end of March, against the backdrop of a sharp increase in infections in Covid-19 reported in the capital. .
Ironically, his company, which employs more than 40,000 people, had already scheduled staff to work from home several times a month to reduce congestion during the Tokyo Olympics, now postponed by a year due to the epidemic.
“Sure, there are times when I have to be in the office, but I can see us continuing to telecommute, say, two days a week,” he said, adding that about 80% of his colleagues were working now remote.
The pandemic has forced companies to implement changes that the government has encouraged for several years, in the hope that less demanding office hours would allow more women to return to work after birth and men get more involved in household chores and child care.
But few companies have followed government advice. A survey from last year found that 19% had given staff the option to telecommute, but only 8.5% had done so.
Resistance to working from home stems from a corporate culture which values the presence of employees in the workplace, often during long criminal hours, to demonstrate their loyalty.
“The Japanese always have the image that telework is not a real job, because you are not physically at the office,” said Haruka Kazama, an economist at the Mizuho research institute.
While Japan has so far avoided the large number of infections and deaths seen in the United States, Europe and China, the epidemic challenges the traditional image of an exhausted and tired employee who s sleeps on crowded commuter trains after an after-work drink with colleagues.
“The situation has put businesses behind the wall,” said Kazama. “They were forced to leave the choice to telework for their employees. “
Shortly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for alternate travel and telework in late February, a survey by Keidanren, a business lobby representing around 400 large companies, found that almost 70% had telecommuting or planning to do so. .
Hitachi introduced telework for 50,000 employees of its group companies in Tokyo, while advertising agency Dentsu closed its Tokyo headquarters and ordered its 5,000 employees to work from home after an employee was tested positive for the virus. Daiwa Securities, with around 10,000 employees, has introduced home teleworking for staff with young children.
The pandemic has also allowed employees to experience a healthier work-life balance. Yuki Sato, an employee of a Tokyo start-up, has set up a small office in the house he shares with his wife and two children. Telework means he no longer has to endure long journeys and has more time for his daughters, whose schools are closed due to the epidemic.
“I can also bathe them in the evening, which I could never do before because I never got home before 8 pm,” Agence France-Presse Sato, who has worked at home since February, told Agence France-Presse. “This experience completely changed my image of teleworking.”
Telework has triggered an increase in sales of items such as web cameras and headphones, but some old analog habits are dying. In the age of electronic contracts, many Japanese companies still require their employees to print documents which are then stamped hanko seals, often by several people.
Mariko Kitano, who works for a television production company, believes the past few weeks have shown that more flexible work practices should continue long after the coronavirus crisis has ended.
“There are times when you have to go to the office, but about 80% of my colleagues have been working from home since the end of February,” she told the Guardian. “I live alone, so I found teleworking really useful. I meet my deadlines, of course, but I can take a break from time to time to do things like hanging up the laundry. “
However, telework does not replace face-to-face contact, said Kitano. “I advise junior colleagues and it can be frustrating sometimes not being able to see what they are doing and offering advice in person.
“But I don’t think we can get back to the current situation, despite the traditional view in Japan that you can only prove your worth by working hard in front of your boss. The past few weeks have shown that teleworking has too many benefits to be abandoned. “
* The names of Okada and Kitano have been changed at their request.
Agence France-Presse contributed to the report.