TOKYO -- Big-name Japanese companies are increasingly introducing flexible working conditions to attract and retain talent.
Starting next April, all employees at food company Ajinomoto will have the option of working from home. Managers will be obliged to telecommute at least once a week.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries, meanwhile, plans to expand its telecommuting program to include all career-track employees in fiscal 2017, which starts in April. A pilot program was introduced in the human resources department this fall; now, both administrative staff and engineers are set to become eligible.
The manufacturer also plans to modify its performance review system, putting a greater focus on hourly productivity to reduce overtime, among other changes. The new policies are intended to help employees split time between work, raising children and caring for elderly parents.
Each year in Japan, over 100,000 people are estimated to quit their jobs to take care of their aging parents.
The country has been gradually warming up to the concept of working from home. Still, only 2.7% of Japan's workers put in at least one full workday from home per week in 2015, whereas 10-20% of Westerners did, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
The government hopes to raise the figure to over 10% by 2020.
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About 3,500 employees at Ajinomoto, including noncareer and part-time workers, will be eligible to telecommute. They will be expected to show up in the office only once a week.
Managers, who make up about a third of that total, will be ordered to work from home once a week in principle, though there will be no penalties for failing to comply. Compulsory telecommuting remains extremely rare in Japan, but the idea is to have bosses take the lead so others will be inclined to follow suit.
Since more employees will be working outside the office, Ajinomoto plans to introduce new computers with stronger safeguards against information leaks, as well as a new information system. This will cost an estimated 1 billion yen ($8.93 million). The new computers will be modified so they cannot be turned on in the wee hours.
The food company also plans to rent several satellite offices, giving employees another option closer to home. And by fiscal 2020, it intends to shorten its standard workday to seven hours.
Ajinomoto and Kawasaki Heavy are not the only big companies shifting toward telecommuting.
Toyota Motor in October began granting the option to 13,000 or so domestic career employees who have been on board for at least several years. The automaker envisions having two groups of workers in the future -- those who mainly toil in the office, and those who primarily telecommute. The company is thinking about new ways to review performance and determine salaries that are suitable to flexible working conditions. It also recognizes the need to ensure smooth internal communication.