Japanese find ‘true balance’ amid quiet telecommuting revolution
By Etienne Balmer and Nils Marie / AFP, FUJISAWA, Japan
Father-of-two Tsutomu Kojima, who was posted far from home for his job at Japanese conglomerate Hitachi Ltd, was “really lonely” until he first started working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has upended office routines around the world, but in Japan — where long hours and reliance on paper files, ink stamps and fax machines are the norm — some say the restructuring was badly needed.
Before the pandemic, just 9 percent of Japanese workers had ever telecommuted, compared to 32 percent in the U.S. and 22 percent in Germany, Tokyo-based consulting firm Nomura Research Institute Ltd said.
However, a quiet revolution is underway in the country’s rigid business culture, with firms working to digitalize operations and offer more flexibility to employees who were once expected to stay late, drink with their boss and travel far accept transfers.
Kojima used to live alone in Hitachi-provided housing near Tokyo, an hour and a half by bullet train from his family in Nagoya.
Back then he was only coming back twice a month, but now the 44-year-old works exclusively from home and says he’s more productive and closer to his teenage daughters.
“I have more time to help them study. My youngest told me she hopes things stay that way,” he said.
“I used to feel very lonely in Tokyo,” Kojima said, adding that he’s since realized that “true balance is not giving up on family.”
Almost a third of jobs in Japan were done remotely during the first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020, the Japan Productivity Center said, although the government has never enacted strict home bans.
The rate has since fallen to 20 percent, but that’s still far higher than before the pandemic, according to quarterly surveys by the nonprofit organization.
To encourage teleworking, the government and some companies have sought to phase out personalized ink stamps to certify documents and the ubiquitous fax machine.
Often in Japan, “business has to be done in person on paper,” a habit dating back to the 1970s and 1980s when Japan’s economy was booming, said Hiroshi Ono, a human resources professor at Hitotsubashi University.
“One of the things that COVID has done is break down those barriers: the work doesn’t have to be done in the office, men can work at home,” he said.
Organizations are realizing that new ways of working can be more efficient, he added.
“Before COVID, it was so important for employees to show they were working hard rather than actually getting results.”
Elsewhere, too, people are fleeing the big city.
A record number of corporate headquarters moved out of Tokyo last year, according to the Teikoku database.
The population has also declined for the first time in 26 years.
Among those raising the sticks are Kazuki and Shizuka Kimura, who left their cramped Tokyo apartment for a custom-built home near the sea.
The couple now do most of their communications and marketing jobs from Fujisawa, southwest of the capital, after struggling to work from home in Tokyo.
“It was really COVID that made us make this decision,” said Kazuki Kimura, who used to look for other places to meet — at his parents’ house or in coffee shops, home-work boxes set up in train stations, and even karaoke stands.
“Sometimes you could hear singing from the booth next door,” which made it difficult to concentrate, said the 33-year-old, who is now learning to surf.
Shizuka Kimura, 29, said she thinks “more and more people are now prioritizing their well-being over their work,” but wondered how quickly things would change on a broader scale.
That concern is shared by Hiromi Murata, global research center manager and senior chief researcher at Recruit Works Institute, who said smaller companies may be slower to adapt to new work styles than big firms like Hitachi, Panasonic Holdings Corp, or telecom giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Company
Remote work can also pose a problem for training new hires because “you learn on the job,” Murata said. “It used to be so important to meet in the office…every company has to find a new balance in its own way and at its own time.”
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