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Opinion

Japan Inc. should use COVID-19 to end excessive formality

Disruption to office life offers the chance to reset a deeply conservative culture

| Japan
Extreme formality runs deep in Japanese business culture, stifling employees' sense of ownership and suppressing innovation. Unexpectedly, the COVID-19 pandemic offers a chance to disrupt such staid traditions.   © Reuters

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner with EY Strategy and Consulting Co., Ltd., Strategy and Transactions -- EY-Parthenon.

Amid the chaos caused by the first coronavirus spike last spring, some Japanese companies posed a technical yet urgent question: How can we make the boss's window on the conference screen larger so they can loom over their underlings?

Whether this is the COVID version of a corporate joke, we do not know. But it sounds just plausible enough to be true. Japanese businesses honor unwritten protocols for everything, from where you sit in a conference room to how to divide seats in a taxi -- the seat farthest from the door in any room and behind the driver in a cab should be reserved for the boss.

Often related to a company's organizational hierarchy, these situations may seem like trifling did-you-knows. But this type of extreme formality runs deep in Japanese business culture, stifling employees' sense of ownership and suppressing innovation. Unexpectedly, the pandemic offers a chance to disrupt such staid traditions.

At its best, formality reflects the respectfulness of Japanese culture. I admit to appreciating it when the host of a meeting walks the departing guests to the elevator. Both parties bow deeply until the elevator door firmly closes -- a ritual I found myself missing during these work-from-home days.

But inside an organization, such extreme formality can become a liability, especially when married to Japan's obsession with details. Multiple checks for reports compiled by younger staff members, including lots of time wasted fussing over things such as the font size, before it is sent upstairs. Heaven forbid that a staple is not at the requisite 45-degree angle. If not, then a fresh document must be printed and stapled correctly.

Fussing over small details can be construed as a form of white-collar apprenticeship. As new employees cannot be expected to comprehend the expert maneuvers of their masters, the best they can do is copy the form. Over decades of repetition, they eventually learn the value of the profound intention behind each stroke and become masters themselves.

Unfortunately, this is just plain romanticizing. Over-the-top formality can hide the incompetence of middle management. And for the apprentices, that moment of epiphany never arrives. Instead, they slowly morph into middle managers who reproach their own underlings for minute failings.

Excessive formality hurts companies in three ways. First, it discourages young minds from voicing their opinions. With the business environment shifting so quickly, and the maturity curve of wisdom being flattened -- if not reversed -- businesses only suffer by being deaf to younger voices.

Secondly, formality flattens performance. Hidden underneath thick layers of protocol, talent becomes much harder to assess and uniformity is preferred over a diversity of talent. That, in turn, entrenches seniority-based promotion, reinforcing the notion that trying harder is pointless.

Lastly, formality encourages groupthink. In the absence of a dynamic culture that encourages employees to challenge each other, the instinct is not to rock the boat. Bold decisions to implement new and innovative ideas, no matter how thorough the reasoning, are unlikely to materialize out of such a hidebound corporate culture.

Sparks do fly, however, when the guard of formality is let down. The CEO of a large consumer products company in Japan recently told me how they were able to launch a new product by giving complete autonomy to a team of young people. Through a combination of passion and "lots of playfulness," they succeeded in creating a fresh idea that ended up shaking an industry resigned to lackluster growth.

An employee of Japanese retailer Aoki Holdings models the "pajama suit" for people working from home. The suit looks like a regular business suit to others on conference calls but is much more comfortable.

Relaxing protocols can bestow serendipity as well. One senior executive I know at a Japanese trading company told me of a meeting he was able to set up following an audacious cold call via LinkedIn, something he would never have done in pre-COVID days.

The pandemic has quickly made remote work, once seen as an exotic concept, a norm for Japanese businesses, robbing excessive workplace formality of its natural environment. In the long term, the pandemic -- an event with the transformative effect of a meteor strike -- is suddenly threatening the entire business etiquette ecosystem. The fact that it is happening simultaneously, across all sectors, signifies its lasting potential to transform.

To make it last, however, will require a major effort. A year from now, features such as to permanently enlarge the boss's Zoom frame may no longer be theoretical. It is up to the companies to embrace this disruption now or risk snapping back to the old ways.

As our workplaces continue to shift online, now is the perfect time for Japan Inc. to implement a reset. Management can actively introduce an inclusive culture for all the crew, including the shinjin, literally the "new people," fresh out of school. Meetings can be spontaneous, and everyone should be encouraged to speak, regardless of rank. With remote work making everyone's contribution transparent, management can finally instill true merit-based assessment.

We may start to hear senior executives lamenting how the corona shinjins may lack basic business etiquette, but I am hopeful that they will still be able to learn the courtesy of accompanying their guests to the elevator once we start meeting in person again. Respect is not incongruous with casualness.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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