Most firms in Japan say 'no' to working from home: Survey

TOKYO • When Ms Emi Tanimura failed to find a daycare slot for her newborn daughter, she had to take a radical step to avoid being away from her job at communications firm Sunny Side Up for a long time. She started working from home.

Now a mother of two, she still works flexible hours, including time at home, as director of the Sunny Side Up president's office - with her boss's blessing - taking care of both her family responsibilities and career.

Ms Tanimura is a rare exception to the rule in hard-driving corporate Japan, where employees often feel pressured to put in long hours in the office.

In a Reuters poll, 83 per cent of Japanese companies said they do not currently allow employees to work from home. And 73 per cent of firms surveyed said they are not considering allowing what Japan often refers to as "telework", or telecommuting, during this summer's Tokyo Olympic Games, according to the survey conducted from Jan 30 to Feb 12.

The aversion to allowing work from home is unwelcome news for the government, which wants companies to let their employees telecommute during the Olympics to make travel easier for Games participants and spectators on Tokyo's notoriously packed trains and roadways.

It also points to a potential headache amid growing concern about the coronavirus epidemic that had killed nearly 1,800 in mainland China as of Monday and has spread to a number of countries in Asia, including Japan.

While companies elsewhere are drawing up contingency plans with large portions of staff working from home in a bid to contain the virus, most Japanese firms would have to implement radical change to follow suit.

The push to encourage working from home chimes with a broader campaign by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government urging more flexible work hours to make it easier for women with children to take up jobs as Japan battles a severe labour shortage because of its fast-ageing population.

Professor Parissa Haghirian of international management at Sophia University in Tokyo said she was not surprised by the survey results because of structural issues found in traditional white-collar Japanese offices that favour hiring workers with general skill sets, rather than specialists, who are moved between divisions every few years.

She said the switching of roles leaves general workers needing more collective support: Work processes are not as clearly defined and documented as in Western companies, making it harder to work independently. A culture accustomed to group interaction also plays a part.

"You have this structure where people are always there (in the workplace) and do everything together. That strongly affects how people see work and do their work," Prof Haghirian said. "It's very difficult to change that."

To be sure, some survey respondents said they were not considering introducing telework during the Olympics because their businesses required them to be in physical locations - such as retail stores - or they were not based in Tokyo.

But others said they simply did not have a flexible-work policy in place, or did not have the technological set-up to allow people to work remotely.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2020, with the headline Most firms in Japan say 'no' to working from home: Survey. Subscribe