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Itochu and Keyence lead Japan's return to the office

Companies find individual answers for productivity on site versus at home

Commuters in Tokyo: Though many companies have experimented with teleworking amid the pandemic, not all see it as a long-term possibility.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Itochu and Keyence quickly brought workers back to the office after the nationwide state of emergency caused by the coronavirus was lifted, as companies across Japan consider whether teleworking is a viable option for them over the long term.

Office workers wearing masks filed into Itochu's headquarters in Tokyo on May 26, the day after the government ended its nearly two-month state of emergency in the capital. The trading house gradually brought more employees back to the office and now expects everyone across Japan to come in, except under special circumstances.

Itochu has been among the first Japanese companies to cease remote work, reopening each office as soon as the emergency was lifted in its area. The company has enacted measures to prevent crowding at cafeterias and elevators.

Chairman and CEO Masahiro Okafuji thinks the office is critical for letting workers focus and meet client demands.

"It's hard to maintain productivity when you're working from home," he said.

Staffers for sensor maker Keyence also have returned. The company is known for sending its sales team all over Japan, as well as for compensating achievements generously. Its parent-only average for annual pay comes to 18 million yen ($168,000), well above the nationwide figure.

Keyence's 2,500 employees were encouraged to work from home during Japan's state of emergency, with only 20% to 30% allowed to come into the office at any given time. Many of the company's clients were forced to shut their factories due to the pandemic.

But when the emergency ended, Keyence immediately allowed 60% of workers into the office. The company has almost entirely resumed regular operations.

"You can't do research and development or sell products from home," a company official said.

Keyence has limited the number of people in conference rooms and installed partitions in the office to protect staffers. The company also uses videoconferences to minimize inefficiencies caused by business trips and worker transfers.

"Instead of just working the way we always have, we can explore many different ways of working," the official said.

But not all businesses are rushing back to the office. Hitachi employees will continue working remotely through July, and the company is revising rules to let staff work from home over the long term. A full framework is expected to roll out next April.

Some Hitachi workers have been more productive at home than in the office. The company intends to define each employee's responsibility more clearly to facilitate remote work, a move it considers necessary to attract more diverse talent.

Ajinomoto has kept most employees working remotely, except at production facilities and other operations that cannot be done from home. The food company plans no major changes for the foreseeable future.

"We will act in line with the government's policies," Ajinomoto said, referring to Japan's push for teleworking. "Large corporations need to lead the charge for new approaches to working."

Roughly 40% of people who have worked from home want to continue doing so, a May survey by Sompo Japan Insurance found. Though not all responsibilities are suited for remote work, many can be done more productively from home with some creativity.

"This is a great opportunity to reevaluate what we've considered the normal way to work," said Makiko Hagihara at the Recruit Works Institute. "Companies will see a difference in their ability to attract new talent based on whether they embrace work from home."

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