How has the Novel Coronavirus changed the way Japanese companies work?   Vol. 3 The New Normal

August 7, 2020 [No.77-2020] 

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


How has the Novel Coronavirus changed the way Japanese companies work?
Vol. 3 The New Normal

In Japan the COVID-19 positive cases started increasing in February, and the State of Emergency was declared on April 7th. Daily new infections peaked on April 10th with 708 cases, then started dropping. In early May, i.e., the end of the emergency, the number decreased to around 200. Not bad, but not good enough. It was decided to extend the State of Emergency for about one more month until May 31st.

The extension of the State of Emergency was disappointing to Japanese people and business. But they could not help starting their own economic activities. They were too busy helping themselves. Restaurants re-opened. In fact, they were not requested to shut down even under the emergency, but they had been closed voluntarily during the emergency from April 7th to early May, partly because employees were so afraid of infection. They, however, could no longer keep closed after early May. They opened again, taking as many disinfection measures as they could – spraying alcohol on guests’ hands, checking guests’ body temperature at entrances, etc. Some restaurants, which had only served dinner before the COVID-19 incident, started serving lunch. Many fine restaurants began providing a take-out or to-go service for the first time. Airline companies, for example Japan Air Lines (JAL), sent ground crews, cabin attendants and pilots to help the nation’s essential industries, agriculture, medical, etc. Some companies which had many excessive workers inside, sent (transferred) them out to other companies or industries, for example cargo transportation, which were in need of helping hands. Some other companies offered a matching-service for those companies with excessive workers and for those who needed help. Every company tried every effort – to keep employment and to avoid lay-offs or redundancies. 

Although many foreign people were skeptical about the effectiveness of the Japanese emergency measures – no enforcement but request, no lockdown but control – Japanese people proved that it worked. By the third week of May, the number of daily new positive cases dropped to under 50 and stayed there. It was not zero. But the situation seemed well under control – the government judged so, and decided to lift the emergency on May 25th, ahead of schedule.

Now, back to normal! But not just as it was – they called it the New Normal. Tele-working partly continued, partly because Japanese workers wanted it, and partly because Japanese management found room for cost cutting. Some companies cancelled office contracts or scaled down workspaces. In Japan, business is centralized in Tokyo, and office rents in Tokyo are among the world’s highest. By continuing tele-working, they succeeded in killing two birds with one stone. Of course, it was not always the case for all companies. Many companies still preferred the previous style, having workers at the office. Especially for those companies who failed in DX (digital transformation) in time for the emergency, they had to have their workers back in the office. They, however, had to take careful measures for infection prevention. In general, Japanese office layout is “island” style, with several desks put together. It is effective for close communication, because you have others near you – right in front of and next to you. But it was not effective for infection prevention. They put up plastic or cardboard partitions between desks, or prepared shift schedules so no more than half of the workers needed to come in. Before the COVID-19 incident, trains were packed with commuters “like sardine cans”, and after, the situation changed to a certain extent, but not completely. People began commuting again, being afraid of the second wave. 

On the other hand, some people – quite a few actually – looked optimistic as the state of the emergency had been lifted. Many of them were in their 20s and 30s. They might think it was all over. But in fact, it was far from over. 

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