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Business trends

A more flexible Japan Inc returns to the office

Companies expect remote work to remain as coronavirus pandemic subsides

Commuters at Tokyo's Shinagawa station this week. Businesses expect more remote working after the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Kai Fujii)

TOKYO -- Japanese companies have cautiously started bringing staff back to their offices, balancing a desire to return to normal with concern for employee safety and a nod to the more relaxed working style that emerged during the pandemic.

The nation's state of emergency was fully lifted on Monday, ending a seven-week period when the government urged Japanese to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus. While no "lockdown" was enforced, many businesses stayed closed and offices emptied out.

But responses by many companies and employees to the Nikkei Asian Review suggest a wholesale return to "business as usual" is not on the cards. Many still fear a spread of infections.

And in a country notorious for long office hours, allowing employees to work from home has shown some companies that attendance at a fixed place need not always be required, as it was in the past.

While the emergency was declared on April 7, some companies had already began encouraging employees to work from their places of residence weeks before that.

"We are still requesting our employees to work from home, except for factory staff or some sales staff who need to go out," Takaaki Nishii, CEO of Ajinomoto, the food producer, told reporters on Wednesday.

Nishii said online business meetings were now preferred by some customers not only as a way to prevent infections but also to improve efficiency. "I have a feeling that online meetings with customers will be further accepted from now on," he added.

Hitachi said it will revise its rules so most employees can work effectively even if they only come into the office two or three days a week. The conglomerate said it will continue to encourage employees to work from home as much as possible.

Many companies are using this week to gear up for a bigger return next week. At Tokyo's busy Shimbashi station on Wednesday, peak-hour carriages on the Asakusa Line were full, though far less packed than in pre-coronavirus times.

"I will resume going to the office full time from June," a 33-year-old man said in Shimbashi. The machinery maker he works for has been asking employees to take turns coming to the office every two days. "There is no inconvenience for me because I work in sales," the man said, though some of his colleagues in other divisions can only work from the office.

While he has no choice but to follow his company's guidelines, he is more careful in his private life. "I have not gone anywhere yet," he said, adding that "if we change our behavior, [the spread of the virus] would quickly happen again."

Sony said its employees would begin returning to their offices on June 1. The company will continue to take safety measures such as allowing staggered working hours so employees can avoid crowded trains and buses. In addition, people's temperature will be taken as they enter the head office. For the first and second week of June, Sony expects 20% of all employees to come to the office.

Sony was among the first Japanese companies to encourage employees to work from home, having done so on Feb. 18, when Japan had a few dozen infections, then among the most of any country outside of China.

The country's total infections have since risen to more than 16,600, according to Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.

Some businesses are leaving work practice decisions up to their employees. Honda Motor, which asked its nearly 10,000 employees across Tokyo and Saitama to work from home in principle when the government announced the state of emergency, has downgraded that "requirement" to a "recommendation."

Minoru Yasuda, executive director of PC maker Lenovo Japan, said 80% of the company's clients are willing to continue remote working practices. Yasuda also said he feels Japan's work culture is shifting. "Through our recruiting activities," he said, "we feel we are entering into an era where companies are chosen by their work styles."

In an April survey by Persol Research and Consulting, a subsidiary of staffing company Persol Holdings, 37% of remote workers said they were anxious about not communicating face to face, while 28% were concerned that their bosses or colleagues may suspect them of slacking off. Still, 53% said they would like to continue teleworking in the post-coronavirus era.

Yuji Kobayashi, Persol Research's senior researcher, suggested that the actual number may turn out to be fewer in practice.

Those who prefer to work in offices tend to be men in their 40s or 50s, who are typically in management positions. "When these people start going to offices, younger people feel they should follow [even if they are not told to]," Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi added that companies should have a clear policy or target to make sure all of their employees would work remotely. He suggested that the shift will not happen in the long term if people gradually resort back to working in offices one by one, making remote work a less feasible option.

Kirin Holdings told Nikkei that the drinks group is considering workstyle reforms and will not return to the tradition that all employees come to the office.

For June, Kirin is asking up to 30% of its workforce to come to the office. It is also asking its employees to wear masks and report their body temperature every day.

The brewer was in an early wave of Japanese companies resorting to remote work. In early March it asked about 10,000 employees to work from home.

Nissan Motor is limiting the number of employees of each department who can come to the office to less than 50%. It is also asking its employees to have daily health checks.

Corporate Japan's dalliance with remote work is likely to bring more change than physical distance. "Applying the lessons learned while working from home, we see a need to shift our focus to allowing employees to work flexibly and effectively with an emphasis on outcomes," said a spokesperson for Fast Retailing, known for its Uniqlo clothing.

According to Persol's Kobayashi, there have been swells of remote work in the past, such as after the devastating earthquake of 2011 and during a swine flu pandemic two years before that. But this time may be different since "everyone knows [the impact of the novel coronavirus] is not just short term." Singapore and South Korea are reminders of the potential for second and third waves.

"We don't plan to go back to [strict] office work immediately," a Honda spokesperson said, "but combine various measures including teleworking and flexible hours. The coronavirus infection risk is something we need to look at as a long-term risk."

This kind of flexibility will also help corporate Japan as the nation's population ages and declines, Kobayashi said, adding that it will be important to promote diversity and expand the available workforce. "There will," he said, "be no complete return to normal as in the past."

Additional reporting by Eri Sugiura, Rurika Imahashi, Jada Nagumo and Nana Shibata.

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