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Business trends

Stop logging hours: Japan finds flexibility in age of telework

Coronavirus adaptions succeed where government failed in promoting work reform

Bans on extended hours for people who work from home have led to rampant unreported and unpaid overtime. (Photo by Ken Furusawa)

TOKYO/OSAKA -- Japan's IT companies are notorious for working long hours. Fujitsu headquarters in Tokyo was famously known as the "castle that never sleeps" during the heyday of Japan's bubble economy two decades ago. Working overtime was contagious, and it was difficult to be that one person in the office who left early.

It was the same for one of its group companies, Tsuzuki Denki, an IT solutions provider. A while back, the company designated Wednesday as the day that staff should go home early. A company announcement would be made in the afternoon, only to be ignored by everyone, who kept their eyes locked on their computer screens.

The novel coronavirus has ushered in a new reality.

With most of its staff working from home, Tsuzuki has introduced new flexible working hours. Core working hours, which used to be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., are now two hours shorter at 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Instead, employees are given the freedom to move the two remaining hours to which ever time of day they choose. For parents with young children, for instance, work can be moved to after household chores. 

Strict rules on work hours have been tossed aside by Japan's companies in favor of more pliable approaches as more employees work from home, a move that may result in changes that last long after the current coronavirus crisis.

"The expansion of telework due to the coronavirus is a good opportunity to change the time-centered work habits of Japanese people," said Jun Nakahara, a professor at the College of Business at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "By making wasted effort more visible, it will make the results-oriented, work-style reform that the government failed to push forward inevitable."

It has also changed the way companies calculate pay.

Education company Benesse Holdings and printer and publisher Kyodo Printing, which had essentially banned overtime at home, have now changed their rules to permit it. If they inform superiors beforehand, all employees can work overtime at home and be paid for it.

In March, Ricoh scrapped a one-hour a day cap on overtime at home, and allowed staff to work as they need. They too will be paid.

Many businesses had banned overtime when telecommuting, following government guidelines released in 2018 after a spate of high-profile deaths reportedly caused by excessive work that encourage barring employees from working outside normal hours, on weekends and holidays, or late at night.

Some critics say, however, that the rules merely result in overtime not being reported.

Front runners like snack maker Calbee have had an easier time adapting to the new normal. It adopted a results-based system back in 2014 and has gone almost entirely remote this time at its head office. 

With a workforce that is half women, it says its policy better accommodates employees with parenting obligations.

"We place more emphasis on efficiency than on demanding results, and we're leaving it to employees to decide how they work at home," a company representative said.

Office furniture manufacturer Itoki now has 80% of workers at its headquarters telecommuting. The company is considering changes to its current system for evaluating performance, which is now based on timekeeping and communication between employees and managers -- a poor fit with the switch to largely remote operations.

In response to Japan's nationwide school closures, the Japanese arm of Microsoft began allowing employees to take up to 100 days of leave for child care. This bold move was made possible by the company's results-focused compensation system.

Yet despite the transition underway in much of corporate Japan, pay based on hours worked remains commonplace.

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