How Japan embraced flexible working

Posted on: 24th July 2018

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Discover how Japan’s ultra-traditional workplace is being challenged and transformed by new remote-working initiatives

Discover how Japan’s ultra-traditional workplace is being challenged and transformed by new remote-working initiatives


Discover how Japan’s ultra-traditional workplace is being challenged and transformed by new remote-working initiatives

Japan’s traditional workplace is being challenged by new initiatives that promote flexible working as an alternative to stressful commutes, oppressive hours and a dwindling population. By Tim Hornyak.

Tokyo has one of the best transit systems in the world. Trains are punctual, clean and ubiquitous. But you don’t want to be on the JR Yamanote Line at 8.30am unless you enjoy near-asphyxiation in the crush of people. Veteran strap-hangers stoically endure elbows in their ribs and two-hour commutes because they have no choice but to be at the office. Even in the digital age, Japanese companies often emphasise being present in the workplace because that’s the way it’s always been.

In Japan, the concept of working from home is relatively alien. Only 13.3 per cent of Japanese firms had a teleworking (also known as remote working) policy as of October 2016, and only 3.3 per cent were planning to introduce one, according to a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry(1).

As for why companies were not letting staff work remotely, 74.2 per cent said they had no type of work that was suitable. When it released the survey results last June, however, the ministry noted that companies with remote working systems were 1.6 times more productive than those that insisted staff punched the clock at the office. Now the ministry wants to increase the telework rate among companies to 30 per cent by 2020.

More productivity, less stress

While Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world, more hours spent working doesn’t translate into better productivity. In fact, Japan ranks 30th in terms of GDP per capita and productivity, according to 2017 OECD data(2).

If that wasn’t reason enough to push companies to rethink their approach to work, in 2020 Tokyo will host the Olympics. Some 40 million overseas tourists are expected to visit Japan that year, up from nearly 30 million in 2017, adding 920,000 riders every day to public transportation networks in Tokyo during the Games.

The government has been trying to get companies to be more flexible with their employees, to promote a healthy work-life balance, after a series of scandals involving overworked people who died. Earlier this year it launched the Premium Friday campaign, encouraging corporate warriors to leave the office at 3pm on the last Friday of every month.

Meanwhile, companies such as Microsoft Japan have embraced flexible work – staff can work anywhere as long as the work gets done – and Yahoo! Japan is considering a four-day work week.

New ways of working

In July 2017, the internal affairs ministry inaugurated Telework Day to promote remote working. About 900 organisations took part, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which oversees the metropolis of nearly 14 million.

“In the past, economic growth was achieved through hard work and long working hours, but now it’s unlikely for people to think that long working hours are linked to achievement,” Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told attendees at an event called Telework Festa. “We need a new [work style] with less physical stress, to enrich the life of each individual.”

Major companies took up the cause. More than half the workers at telecom NTT Data’s Tokyo headquarters switched to remote work, while 270 out of 330 eligible Tokyo-based staff at snack-maker Calbee telecommuted, according to The Japan Times(3).

The internal affairs ministry wants to make Telework Day an annual event, and there’s reason to believe it could change attitudes in Japan. After all, the government has a track record of change. In 2005, Koike, then environment minister, launched the Cool Biz campaign to encourage workers to wear short sleeves instead of suits in summer so air conditioning could be reduced and electricity could be saved. Dressing down for summer is now standard and millions of tons of CO2 emissions have been saved through the campaign.

Crowd of people hurry at Ikebukuro station in Tokyo, Japan

Japanese commuters at Ikebukuro station in Tokyo, Japan


Improved performance

For companies and corporate management, the benefits of flexible work hours seem obvious. A 2014 study(4) in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that call centre staff at a travel agency who worked from home as part of an experiment saw a 13 per cent increase in performance, including fewer breaks and sick days.

The message is spreading in Japan, but slowly. Kunihiko Higa, a professor in the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Graduate School of Innovation Management, says that businesses in Japan have yet to be convinced of the merits of remote working.

Meanwhile, implementation is usually left to the discretion of individual managers, who may be unwilling to try something unprecedented. Other questions include how to set up communications systems that can approximate the work environment as closely as possible.

But Higa points out that another pressing problem may also help popularise teleworking: Japan’s demographic woes. With a low birth rate and strict policies against immigration, the population fell by a record 300,000 in 2016. By 2050, about 40 per cent of Japanese will be aged over 65, according to research from the National Institute of Population and Social Securities Research(5).

“There’s a serious chronic shortage of workers due to the aging population and the problems of caring for children and elderly family members,” says Higa. “These are common issues for all organisations, regardless of whether they’re in the public or private sector. If forward-thinking business leaders succeed in introducing full-scale strategic teleworking, it will spread quickly.”

As the country’s population shrinks, the Japanese will have to do more with less in order to remain competitive in the global economy and maintain their standard of living. That includes investing in flexible approaches to work. Productivity will likely go up, and those early-morning trains might be a bit more comfortable.


Tim Hornyak is a Tokyo-based journalist focused on business, science and technology, and the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots







Topics in this article

  • Work Trends


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