Japan’s office managers are experimenting with this radical new trend called “working from home”

Turn off the lights on your way out.
Turn off the lights on your way out.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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More and more Japanese companies are rising to the call of prime minister Shinzo Abe to fix Japan’s moribund economy by giving employees the flexibility to work remotely.

The practice is known as “telework,” or terewaku, in Japan, and it’s slowly gaining traction in a country where corporate norms such as putting in face time in the office, teamwork, and a seniority-based model of promotion remain deeply entrenched.

The reasons behind the government’s push for telecommuting are also gaining urgency. Japan has long had a productivity problem—its workers spend among the most hours in the office in the world but are not particularly productive (paywall). Its workforce is also shrinking. But the recent death of an employee at Japan’s largest advertising company allegedly due to overwork, and a grave childcare crisis, are putting more pressure on Abe’s government to address corporate Japan’s problems.

“The government is very serious about this,” said Parissa Haghirian, a professor in management at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The problem is that… companies have certain traditions, and they want to keep these traditions.”

More FaceTime, less face time 

If Abe’s economic reform blueprint, known as Abenomics, goes according to plan, more than 10% (paywall) of all workers in Japan will be telecommuting at least one day a week by 2020, up from 4% now. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of International Affairs and Communications and released last summer (link in Japanese, pdf, p19), the percentage of companies that allowed telecommuting in some form in 2015 increased to 16.2%, compared with 11.4% the year before. Companies said their main reasons for introducing telecommuting were to improve efficiency and to reduce employees’ commuting time (which can sometimes involve being pushed into crammed trains by transport workers).

However, 42% of companies surveyed said that less than 5% of their employees were taking advantage of it. In contrast, about 43% of employed people in the US work remotely at least some of the time, according to a Gallup poll (paywall) released in February. The phenomenon of cafes filled with people working on their laptops is still in its infancy in Japan, where many cafes do not offer free wifi.

Japan has another reason to encourage companies to have telecommuting practices in place—the government recognized after the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011 that remote working is an effective way of saving electricity and allows businesses to continue operating even in case of a disaster, according to (link in Japanese) the Japan Telework Association, a government-linked entity.

Even as remote working becomes the norm in many Western companies, Japanese companies are still only tip-toeing into this brave new world of work. Many companies lay down rules regulating how many days people are allowed to telecommute, said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies who has researched management in Japan. One bold exception, she noted, was potato-chip maker Calbee, which recently announced (link in Japanese) that starting in April it would lift the limit on the number of days employees are allowed to work remotely.

“[Japanese companies] still need to maintain customs like going out together and putting in face time,” said Nemoto. “They really like having a community-like atmosphere in the workplace… Companies are concerned about how they’re going to evaluate people if people start working from home.”

Employees, used to working in an office and around other people, are also anxious about working remotely. Nikkei, Japan’s largest business daily, suggested in a list (link in Japanese) of tips for telecommuting that people could get into “work mode” by wearing their employee badge at home so that children understand that their parent is working. Its other tips included using a timer to make sure that telecommuters check their email every hour to ensure smoother communication with colleagues in the office, and kindly asking one’s wife to leave the house during the day.

Dude, where’s my data?

Another issue is that many Japanese companies are paranoid about giving employees access to company emails and other data from their personal devices, for fear that information security could be compromised. Many companies do not let employees use USB sticks in their work computers, for example. “Beware of the gazes of people around you while working with your laptop at a co-working space,” advised the Yomiuri newspaper in a recent article (link in Japanese).

Fujitec, Japan’s fourth-largest elevator company, is trying to overcome some of these conservative attitudes by encouraging the use of cloud computing and telecommuting. Kenji Tomooka, Fujitec’s chief information officer who was previously at Uniqlo’s parent Fast Retailing, said that flexible working arrangements simply make sense for a company whose staff spend large amounts of time working off site performing maintenance on elevators.

After much resistance from the board, Tomooka said in 2014 he managed to convince the company to allow employees to “bring your own device,” or “BYOD,” allowing them to check emails without going to the office. Employees in the field performing maintenance on elevators can also use video conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts to better communicate with colleagues in the office, rather than sending emails or using phone calls to solve problems.

Tomooka said that employees told him they were saving about 90 minutes each day not having to come to the office just to check their emails, write reports, or do their expenses.

“In Japan, the use of the cloud or [personal devices] still faces resistance, because you don’t know where the data center is located or where the data is sitting. Japanese culture is really based on monozukuri,” said Tomooka, referring to the Japanese philosophy of creating physical objects with an emphasis on craftsmanship.

“Top management often asks questions when we have a data center arrangement, like ‘Have you actually been there and checked the machines?’… the cloud is something that you cannot physically see.” 

Japan’s big push to promote remote working comes as some Western companies are reevaluating whether the trend has gone too far. IBM, one of the earliest adopters of remote working (including in Japan), is now requiring employees who mostly worked from home to commute to offices in one of six different locations, including re-locating if they have to, much to the anger of IBM employees. In 2013, then Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer implemented a similar policy at the company, citing a need to maximize “communication and collaboration.”

Japanese companies may be facing the opposite problem. Because employees are compensated for overtime, many are willing to stay after mandated working hours, which is putting a dent in the government’s plans to get people to work less by introducing policies such as Premium Friday, which encourages people to leave at 3pm on Fridays. So far, the number of employees taking part in it has been negligible. Now the government is looking into capping overtime hours and imposing penalties on violators. Some companies have taken to simply shutting off electricity and lights at a certain time at night to force people to leave.

“For employees, if they take the work home, they don’t get paid extra,” said Haghirian. “[Telecommuting] isn’t a popular concept. They find it better to work at the office.”