Vol. 2. COVID-19 Workplace

July 28th, 2022 [No. 100 – 2022]

Maita Tatsunobu,
CEO of HR Business Partner Inc.,
Professor of Globis Graduate School of Management


Vol. 2. COVID-19 Workplace

1.    Working from Home

2.    Changing Work Rules

3.    Challenge to Japanese Management

4.    Workplace of the Next Generation

1.    Working from Home
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in January 2020, tele-working (working from home) quickly prevailed among most organizations where it was possible. In fact, tele-working itself had been promoted by the government from even before the pandemic, as a measure of “Workstyle Reform” in the nation.

According to a survey by Nihon Keizai Shinbun (Nikkei Newspaper), about 50 percent of major Japanese companies answered they had a tele-working policy. It, however, was targeted at those employees who had to take care of small children or elderly parents. The policy had been “exceptionally” applied to, and used by, a small portion of the workforce.

But since the pandemic, tele-working became a necessity for all. Many Japanese organizations changed their work rules, so employees could flexibly change where they worked. Before then, common work rules limited where employees could work, requiring them to show-up at the office.

2.    Changing Work Rules
As the majority of employees started working from home, organizations also changed their allowance policy. In Japan, providing employees with a commutation allowance, i.e., paying for employees’ commuter passes, was common practice.
As it became more and more likely that the pandemic would last a long time, more and more organizations started to amend their commutation allowance policy. They stopped paying a fixed monthly amount, and instead started to reimburse the actual cost. More often than not, it resulted in cost savings for organizations. Some organizations used the saved funds to create a new “Work from Home Allowance”, which subsidized the incurred costs for employees working from home, for example, increased electricity bills, purchase of stationery, and so on.

It looked a small, but in actual fact, was a big change. Because such a new policy meant those organizations anticipated their employees would work from home regularly, not temporally, it was a great change in work-style. Before, despite the efforts of the government, working from home did not become popular in Japanese business society. For Japanese social and cultural reasons, people just preferred to go to their office, and organizations also expected it from the standpoint of management efficiency and employees’ loyalty. The pandemic, however, suddenly triggered a change in the Japanese long-lasting style of work.

3.    Challenge to Japanese Management
The change in Japanese work style required a change in Japanese management style. Japan was known as a “high-context” culture, where people understood each other through non-verbal communication. Such magical communication was possible at work, because generally Japanese workers spent very long hours of the day, and very many years, together at office. They could just “feel to know” what others wanted without their saying. It may sound fantastic, but not always.

Such non-verbal communication only works when people are together. By tele-working, people were distanced from each other and they had difficulty to know what they were supposed to do. Traditionally, Japanese organizations do not have job descriptions prepared for each person, because everyone was expected to work flexibly depending on the situation. Japanese managers were so used to depending on workers’ “telepathic insights” and “flexible role-taking", that Japanese managers were not good at structuring the job and telling people what each one should do.

4.    Workplace of the Next Generation
It is not surprising Japanese managers wished to bring the old workplace back. But younger employees seem to have a different view. Thanks to tele-work, they can avoid long commutation, stressful managers, and “nomi-kai” (a drinking party with one’s bosses and co-workers). Nomi-kai is deemed a Japanese business custom, which is very hard to decline. By spending long hours together at the office as well as after work, Japanese people have deepened their mutual understanding.

Today, young people tend to choose employers that allow tele-work, have no overtime, and no nomi-kai. That may not be welcome to Japanese managers, but as an organization they have to make it happen in order to attract and retain young talented workers. Such a change is causing an undesirable side effect. According to the research conducted by the author, as tele-working becomes common, young workers are becoming less engaged with their work and workplace. Today, more and more Japanese businesses are making new efforts to develop their organizations to function in a tele-working environment.