Flexible & distributed: How work in Japan is evolving after COVID-19
Japanese workers adapting to working from home share their ideals for the future of work

This post was written together with Shizuka Nagahama and Joy Ding.

As companies have been forced by COVID-19 to allow workers to work from home, there has been a lot of buzz around companies’ expansion of remote work and work from home policies. Some like Twitter and Square have publicly announced that they are planning to allow workers to work remotely “forever.” However, there hasn’t been as much discourse on what kinds of policies, norms and expectations will exist to support those changes.

What will people’s day to day lives working in and out of the office actually feel like?

Over the course of two months, we conducted longitudinal interviews with seven people between the ages of 25 to 68, working full-time in various industries (from design to finance to manufacturing), in order to understand the experiences of workers in Japan adapting to working from home during the state of emergency (~40% of the working-age population). Some of the participants are also from Frontier Consulting, our first pilot partner.

While many people appreciated the flexibility and time saved afforded them by working from home, they also felt the pain points of slower communication channels and lower social morale.

Given these responses, it seems extremely unlikely that the majority of Japanese workers will choose to continue to work from home full-time after the state of emergency is lifted. However, it seems equally unlikely that the usage of remote working, the phrase itself implying a centralized office, will be the same as it was pre-pandemic.

What does seem likely is that companies will need to learn to restructure themselves around flexible and distributed work, where offices and teams are designed around the expectation that the majority of people will be working from different places, at different times. Offices will likely need to be reimagined as gathering spaces for teams to share ideas and build team morale, with a larger focus on flexible seating arrangements and meeting spaces. Teams will need to work together to build new rituals that help people working in different locations feel connected.

These are not incremental changes, but a large shift in thinking that requires up-front investment from companies and their leaders. And now is an especially important time to be considering how to implement these changes, when a significant percentage of the working population has experienced remote and flexible work.

Flexibility saves time and increases productivity

During our interviews, many participants found that working from home increased their productivity.

One of the biggest benefits that employees gained from working from home is that they no longer have to commute to work. This is especially true in Japan where the average Tokyo resident spends approximately 8 hours commuting in packed trains every week. That’s 13% longer than in New York, the city with the longest average commute in America.

Maki Takeno (name changed), a program director at a broadcasting & media company noted: “Cutting the commute time is huge. I didn't think it was such a big deal before, but now I realize that it is! I can start and end the workday earlier, do laundry in between, cut carrots for dinner…”

For Takeno-san, working from home not only saves her time, but also allows her to use her time more productively throughout the day. She explains, “Working 9:30am - 6pm, I would feel very lazy about doing chores after work, so I would end up leaving it to the weekends. Now I can micromanage and do them in-between work. In general, I feel like my quality of life is higher (if only I wasn’t stuck at home!).”

In Japan, where women currently do 80% of the housework, working from home has also been an opportunity for men to witness the work that their wives do in the home, and participate more in household chores and childcare.

Masato Morishita, the head of office design firm Frontier Consulting’s Osaka branch, says, "There is more time in my schedule for family. Before, I would only see my children in the morning — I would typically come home after they had gone to sleep. My wife had been requesting from a while ago that I come home early at least once a month. It won't become a habit if it's once a month, so ideally I would like to be home early once or twice a week, take them to their swimming lessons, and eat dinner together as a family."

After experiencing the flexibility of working from home, many are realizing that they can be productive and efficient working from home, or in a third space between the home and office.

Morishita-san concludes, “Now, I feel that there are more options available — I can think about ways to efficiently work between the office, near my clients’ office, and my home. There's less feeling that I have to be in the office to work.”

Communication and morale remain challenges for remote work

Working from home also came with its challenges for our interviewees, especially with communication and morale.

Because there are fewer opportunities for casual conversation when everyone is working from home, some felt a rift between departments. This was especially true for younger tenured staff, with fewer established relationships, who expressed the desire for more communication and input from senior staff and mentors.

Shu Uehara (name changed), a younger salesperson, noted that he felt more stress from having less communication with senior managers. He was constantly worried about whether certain tasks were moving forward, but hesitated to contact them because he didn’t want to inconvenience them. He lamented the fact that it would be “so easy to communicate if we were in the same room.” This sentiment was echoed by many younger-tenured employees across industries.

Even longer tenured staff felt frustrated with remote communication. Saeko Suzuki (name changed), a relationship manager at a bank recalled, “Someone forwarded me a chain of correspondence without any explanation. I couldn't grasp the entire picture of what was going on, so I asked some questions and received a curt response that sounded like ‘You should know, you’re the expert.’ It’s stressful because it's hard to understand and empathize through text."

We found that some people felt emotionally distant from their organizations after being away for several weeks -- Atsushi Koide (name changed), a young engineer, regularly communicates with factory workers by phone and said that despite continued engagement over the phone, he felt less responsibility for his and their work when working from home versus being in the office.

This decline in morale was also perceived by managers, one of whom noted that some members in her team were less motivated about 3 weeks into the state of emergency: “Some staff would make careless mistakes that they wouldn’t normally make, or take longer than usual to complete their tasks.”

According to Ayu Gumizawa, a sales assistant at Frontier Consulting Tokyo, “Working from home is great for doing self-driven tasks, but terrible for getting new projects and work — so much of my work comes from regular communication with the sales team, which I’m not getting enough of. I think that the sales team is also under a lot of stress, because they can't casually ask for my help.”

Designing spaces for flexible and distributed work

For most of the interviewees we spoke with, working from home forever is not sustainable in its current form. People appreciate the increased flexibility, but miss physical hubs or centers for more collaborative tasks.

The future office could become less of a centralized hub and instead, one of many places where people could gather and collaborate. Indeed, Minna no Ranking surveyed 1,824 workers in Osaka and Tokyo about the state of remote work during lockdown, and 76% said that they prefer a mix of working remotely (teleworking) and going into the office.

When we asked our interviewees what their ideal work week would look like, many of them said they would want to spend at least one day a week at the office. This way, they could have time to collaborate, meet, and prioritize their tasks, then use the rest of the week to work on them at their own pace, in a place where they feel most comfortable.

Eriko Ikeda, who leads a design team at Frontier Consulting Tokyo, predicts, “Organizations will need to rethink the way they work. I can see office space being cut by 30-50%, and organizations spending some of their real estate savings redesigning their offices. You might have full-time desks for administrative staff, while everyone else has a hot desk, or seats in a co-working space.”

Morishita-san adds, “At the beginning of the work from home order, administration, business, and back-office staff were adamant that it wasn't possible because so much of their work was paper-based. We switched many physical paper-based forms to Kintone and made faxes go to email. ‘Impossible’ is a notion, a preconception — if we think things through, solutions can always be found.”

Successful tools and practices

Japan shifting away from physical paperwork & hanko, seals required for most documents, is a first step towards changing the processes to support distributed work. However, more significant investment in tools and processes for communication and morale are required for truly distributed work to succeed.

One key point that came up was digital communication channels for casual conversation, not just scheduled formal meetings, which helped teams feel connected to each other and stay on the same page when they are not co-located.

We heard many people talking about the success of online happy hours. According to Morishita-san, being able to casually talk to people outside of his branch has made him more aware about exchanging information with more people.

“I feel less distance with other offices (Nagoya, Fukuoka, Tokyo). We started online happy hours and can hang out with Tokyo staff. It feels more equal now -- information and communication that tended to stay within branches or HQ is more readily available and accessible. It feels like there’s increased transparency.”

Many teams also implemented teamwide standups to sync first thing in the morning, and also had channels for casual banter.

Employees are also more likely to be successful in working from home when they feel pro-actively supported by their organizations.

Suzuki-san explains, “My work was very proactive not only with providing IT support for working from home, but also providing for employees’ wellbeing, such as offering to send ergonomic work chairs and 21 inch computer monitors to our homes. If I needed to come into the office, they would organize a way to help me avoid coming into contact with anyone else. They would pay for taxi service to avoid congested public transit. Even though I didn’t take advantage of these offerings, I really appreciate their gesture. I grew a warm trust, like a feeling of family, towards the company.”

Employees felt motivated by the support and care that the organization invested into their wellbeing while working from home. One challenging issue that Japan must address is shifting corporate culture away from “face time,” which promotes staying in the office until very late for career advancement. Managers must value flexible working and incorporate it into their own lives, otherwise, junior staff won’t be able to ask for it themselves.

Conclusion

During the state of emergency, people were confined to their homes and had no choice about where they could work. As people return to work this month after the state of emergency has lifted, we’ll continue to follow their experiences as they transition back to having the choice of working in the office, now having experienced the flexibility and benefits of a more distributed model for work.

Many of the initial steps needed for drastically changing workplace culture in Japan are now in place: changing attitudes from management about productivity, and improved bureaucratic policies around paperwork and technology. The office has the chance to become a place to encourage conversation and team building, rather than a place to clock hours. It’s now up to organizations to provide guidelines, processes, and tools to support their employees’ success in this new world.

From Shinji Ineda at Frontier Consulting Tokyo’s perspective, “Everyone has experienced remote work and understands both the merits and challenges that come with it. As an office design company that promotes new ways of working, I want to help the industry advance toward more flexibility and remote work.”

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