Liberated during the pandemic from commuting and, in some cases, presentism, we might be disillusioned by how the old working habits and fixed office hours may soon find their way back into our lives.
How will our work style look in two or three years from now? Well, there are three possible answers. Our working style may change completely with the most of work done from home or, on the other end, after a few years, when the risk of coronavirus infection is significantly eliminated either by vaccine or effective treatment, we will be back to an indistinguishable from pre-pandemic office style. Some “blended” style which will allow many of us working regularly from home two or three days a week, seems to be an option, too. Recent data from Japan may shed light on how our post-pandemic will look like.
So far, Japan is dealing with Covid-19 pandemic better than many other countries. The scale of positive coronavirus cases is hundred times less compared to what we see in the US, the UK and Europe and the number of casualties is much smaller. While work-from-home has undeniable benefits, and no need to commute is probably the greatest one, data suggests that we may have underestimated the importance of the daily routine of internal in-person communication, taking it for granted. So, when pandemic is over, we will probably find ourselves heading to our pre-pandemic offices and, surprisingly or, maybe not, be grateful for that happening.
- The way we work is a significant demonstration of our corporate culture, and the two
must align to be successful
- Working behind a screen does not protect us from the worst of human behaviour, it
can simply reframe it and make it emerge in new but familiar guises
- Consent is required when shaping the ways we work together – mandating an
approach to an unwilling audience leads to disconnection and disillusionment
Please note, the following article refers to Covid-19 data as of the end of June 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic outbreak has brought enormous changes to people’s lives around the world, and while we are now on the road to recovery, it is not clear what the post-pandemic world will look like. This is particularly true in terms of the ways in which we will work and learn. The lockdowns in the UK brought to life the furlough scheme and working full-time from home for many office workers. In many cases, these approaches worked well, allowing people to re-balance their life-work hours, while at the same time preserving and even increasing productivity. Many have argued that it was not the office hours that caused them stress, but rather the commuting routine, and that they would still prefer to work from home a few days a week after the pandemic. Some negative factors have been commonly mentioned, such as fatigue from attending numerous online meetings and the blurring of the line between work and private time. Overall, however, it now looks as if a consensus has been reached in the UK, underpinned by issuing of seasonal train tickets, tailored to two or three days a week in the office, to implement a ‘blended’ work style before long. Even so, it would be naïve to regard this as a universal choice, or even a uniform reaction in all advanced economies, as corporate culture varies significantly, with some global investment banks, for example, encouraging their employees to return to the office.
Liberated during the pandemic from commuting and, in some cases, presenteeism, we might feel disillusioned as old working habits and fixed office hours find their way back into our lives. How will our working style look five or ten years from now? There are three possible answers. Our working style may change completely, with most work done from home, or at the other extreme, five to ten years after the pandemic, when the risk of a new coronavirus pandemic is significantly reduced either by vaccines or efficacious treatment, we may be back to an office style that is indistinguishable from the pre-pandemic one. Of course, some ‘blended’ style that allows many of us to work regularly from home two or three days a week may be an option in the long term, too.
Let us take as an example the situation in Japan. Japanese corporate culture is known for its collectivism and consensus-seeking as the basis for management decisions, a long-term employment system, and advancement based on seniority. These characteristics have also led to an extremely inflexible labour market. Will the new working style, caused by the pandemic emergency, lead to a permanent and drastic change in the working style of Japanese people and the way the labour market functions, or will it be just a short-lived answer to the circumstances caused by the pandemic? Recent data from Japan may shed some light on a correlation between the corporate culture and work style patterns.
So far, Japan is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic better than many other countries. Applauded for once delaying the Olympics, Japan is catching up in terms of the scale of its vaccination efforts while implementing stop-and-go soft lockdowns to eliminate in-person interaction as much as possible and, at the same time, allowing the economy to gather its pace of recovery. The scale of positive coronavirus cases is a hundred times.
less than we see in the US, the UK and Europe, with a smaller number of casualties. With a population of 126 million, there were 792,837 positive cases of Covid-19 and 14,626 total deaths as of 26 June 2021, according to the Japanese Ministry of Labour, Health and Welfare. The high level of good personal hygiene, supported by the custom of wearing masks in public during flu season, which was observed long before Covid-19, does its job, as does the naturally maintained social distance. Shaking hands is rather an exception to the rule in Japan and could only be seen during business interactions with foreigners, while the cheek-kissing greeting ritual has not yet reached the Japanese archipelago.
On the other hand, jam-packed commuter trains and crowded platforms do present a real risk of spreading infection. As elsewhere, winter this year brought to Japan more coronavirus cases, and the government had no choice but to declare a state of emergency, implementing a soft lockdown for the second time since the start of the pandemic. All schools remained open, but non-essential travel was banned, restaurants and bars were closed after 8pm, and anyone who could work from home was advised to do so by the government. These measures brought positive coronavirus cases down for some time, only for the country to witness another rise in infection levels, and to again implement some of the restrictions as the country prepared to welcome the Olympic Games in July.
Against this backdrop, Japan saw an increasing number of companies choose to keep their employees at home. Considering the high standards of communication technologies and busy commuter trains, one might assume that working from home is a natural choice for the Japanese. However, numerous surveys undertaken by public and private institutions have proven the famous quote by Peter Drucker – the legendary management consultant who was also close to Japan – ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ true.
Indeed, the results of the latest survey conducted by the Japan Productivity Center showed that working from home has not come naturally. In January, after the declaration of a state of emergency, only 22% of employees worked remotely, which includes working from home, but also refers to all types of remote workplaces, such as tiny, rented offices (some hotels in Japan started offering their rooms for work during the day), cafés and even benches in the park (i). Furthermore, the data correlates well with another survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute of the Cabinet Office in December, which showed that only 21.5% worked remotely in December compared to 27.7% in May last year, when the state of emergency was first declared. In Tokyo alone, predictably, these numbers were higher – 48.4% in May and 42.8% in December – but were still significantly lower than the 70% recommended by the government.
More interestingly, though, in December, amongst those who had worked remotely in May, more than half (54.7%) decided either to decrease the amount of remote work (25.4%) or to stop it entirely (29.3%), suggesting that remote work was merely an unavoidable and temporary response to the restrictions imposed by the government. The main reason behind these decisions (44.8%) was a change in the company’s stance towards remote work. Forty percent of those surveyed in December, compared to 36.1% in May, said that working remotely does not work for their occupation. Nearly forty percent (38.4%) of respondents in December, compared to 34.5% in May, admitted that informal conversations in the office and routine updates with colleagues are difficult to have remotely, and almost a third of those surveyed felt the stress of virtual communication (28.2% in December, 27.1% in May). Data security was another concern for a quarter of respondents (22.9% in December, 26.7% in May) (ii).
Despite the opportunity to avoid packed trains and, instead, have more time to spend with family members and children, many Japanese – famously known for their dedication to corporate life, spending long hours at the office, frequently followed by socialising over drinks after work, and, in the case of senior management, participating in regular golf competitions during weekends – did not, as one may anticipate from the Western experience, embrace this new working style. Working from home was a response to an emergency, rather than a deliberate choice to radically change the working style of many Japanese.
Nonetheless, attitudes towards working from home varied from industry to industry and sector to sector. According to a Toyokeizai survey that targeted more than 1,300 companies, from consultancies and think tanks to the automobile industry and media, 42% of companies overall embraced remote working (iii). Not surprisingly, 100% of consultancies and think tanks replied to the survey that they had implemented working from home, but only 16% of newspapers and 23% of television companies had done so. In the manufacturing sector, including the automobile industry, around 70% of companies decided on remote work. Hotels and supermarkets were on the low end regarding the shift to the remote work, and no news agency or radio station had done so. But that was when the pandemic dictated the rules.
Nonetheless, according to Mainichi Shimbun, 90% of 126 major companies which had implemented remote work during the pandemic answered that they intend to continue this blended work style after the pandemic is over (iv). The reason for this is that in many cases, working from home seems like a natural response to an emergency or pandemic; in professions such as accounting, consultancy, research, private banking and many others, what is needed for most work to be done is a telephone line to call customers, a laptop to produce documents and spreadsheets, and access to the internet for online meetings and sharing documents with colleagues. For those professions, productivity has not only been preserved, but improved, at least according to the CEO of the largest Japanese investment bank, Nomura, which decided to keep up to 60% of its employees working from home in a post-Covid world (v). Furthermore, the same company announced in June 2021 that it would, as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus, cut its office force by 70% (vi).
Improving productivity in some sectors is only one side of the story, and it is still unclear if this can or will fundamentally change the Japanese working style, underpinned by its traditional corporate culture married with often ambiguous job descriptions, when these exist at all, and its rotation system, which values personal contributions to the group more than professional skills, and, most of all, an ability to work in harmony with others.
In light of the increasing attention on the importance of sustainable and ethical capitalism, with an emphasis on the well-being of all stakeholders, the traditional Japanese management style, with its bottom-up decision-making process, has recently come into the limelight once again. All of the above factors cast doubt on how long a blended working style will exist after the pandemic and to what extend its patterns will be able to take root in Japan. The positive aspects of re-balancing life and work may lead employees to consider embracing remote work in the long term, but whether this will make up for weakening ties of personal communication, including informal ones, which for a long time cemented the collective pattern of Japanese corporate culture, is another question.
The issue of remote work is multifaced, and it may not only shift and cancel some patterns of the pre-pandemic office style, but also magnify old negativities, and the Japanese experience provides some clues as to what should be considered as the post-pandemic working style emerges. One problem that garnered attention in Japanese society, as highlighted by major media outlets, was the invasion of privacy and ‘remote harassment’, or ‘remohara’ as it is called in Japan (vii).
Sustainable development and responsible business practices, which are in focus these days, could be partly observed decades ago in the traditional Japanese corporate model of putting employees’ satisfaction ahead of stakeholders’ interests. To explain why, for so many corporations in Japan, embracing environmental, societal and governance (ESG) issues came quite naturally, we must only recollect, for instance, the life-long employment system in Japanese large corporations, which is still alive and functioning.
On balance, there are also issues that need to be addressed, one of them being workplace bullying, or ‘power harassment’ as it is known in Japan. This, of course, is not merely a Japanese problem, as bullying unfortunately can occur in any work environment, and there are no companies that are one hundred per cent immune to this ‘bullying virus’. The Japanese experience, however, may give us the upper hand in spotting and fighting against these unhealthy and distressing trends.
When the former prime minister and chief of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoshiro Mori, resigned over sexist remarks he made during a meeting with the members of the Japan Olympic Committee, both the remarks and the reaction to them were very Japanese in many ways (viii). The utterly inappropriate and discriminatory comment that the women on the board talk too much and would need to put a time limit on their speaking brought fire and fury from every corner of Japanese society and abroad. All of this put huge pressure on Japan’s Olympic Committee, which was already under the significant pressure of the Tokyo Olympics, having been once postponed because of the pandemic.
The incident not only exposed the broader ‘bullying’ problem in modern Japan. It also showed that people are not going to be silenced and pretend this issue is not a big deal, just the misspoken words of an old man, a politician known for his odd comments in the past, and to wait for ‘seventy-five days’, as the Japanese proverb ‘Hito-no uwasa mo nanajūgonichi’ goes, until things calm down.
This event also provided a hint as to why Japan needed to produce legislation, in addition to that enacted in the 1986 Equal Employment Opportunity Law, which protects against sexual harassment inter alia, to combat power harassment or ‘power-hara’ and bullying at work, as recently as last year (ix). And we probably will not be surprised to hear that the infamous ‘power-hara’ is now mutating along with the coronavirus into its new variant, namely ‘remohara’, from ‘remote working harassment’, or ‘tele-hara’, from ‘tele-working harassment’.
So, what is ‘remohara’, and how should we deal with it? After the euphoria of being liberated, mainly from the commute and, in some cases, from stressful relationships at the office, the Japanese began to learn that – to their surprise – working from home has its own negative aspects. Spending hours with just themselves in small apartments in front of the computer and participating in one video meeting after another with their colleagues takes a mental toll. Add to that a blurred work–life balance, in which literally everything is happening in a small bedroom, or at the dining table at best, without any visible or tangible borders demarcating the nine-to-five, and you get the picture. And yet, virtual reality adds even more challenges.
People quickly realised with bitter surprise that continuing visual communication in what is supposed to be the ‘comfort of your own home’ turned out to be an invasion of privacy, sometimes amplified by the ‘black magic’ of the internet, in which abuse occurs more easily in the virtual space than in the real one. Privately guarded, small and cosy Japanese homes suddenly became exposed to people who were not usually invited to visit these private premises. Rather than socialize at their homes, Japanese prefer to spend time with friends in ‘neutral territory’, such as cafes and other public facilities. Mix this uninvited, although unavoidable, communication with the fake intimacy that internet magic provides, and the grounds for ‘remohara’ or ‘remote harassment’ appear.
Constrained by modern office standards of manners and strengthened by law, as it is now in Japan, traditional bullying started mutating into its virtual variant. Working from home, female employees reported unwanted intimacy from bosses asking if they wanted to have a virtual ‘just the two of us’ drinks, or uninvitedly peeking over the shoulder of colleagues asking about their house, or their choice of clothes, or loudly requesting an update on whether facial make-up was in place for the morning meeting. There were remarks by an irritated boss, telling mothers to silence a child when there was no spare room in the house or nobody else able to look after the toddler, not to mention the suspicious boss requiring his subordinates to keep their laptop camera on at all times to check if they were working. Other variants include isolation, simply not inviting certain people to virtual meetings, or ‘forgetting’ to copy business emails to them. In an environment where straight face-to-face communication is almost impossible, the ‘remohara’ pandemic began to threaten employees very well-being.
Aware of this happening, yet still in a very early stage of understanding this new ‘remohara’ virus, not to mention how to fight and prevent it, management started thinking about how to protect companies from the legal claims arising from the new challenges of virtual workplaces. Some insurance companies in Japan launched corporate insurance policies covering this issue (x). But what we need more than an insurance policy that aims to guard the company and its management are new regulations to protect employees from the creeping reality of online bullying, before the ‘remohara’ becomes a pandemic.
There is no denying that the ‘blended’ work style, or partially working from home, has its advantages. However, it is necessary to consider all aspects of this experience in order to make it better and thus longer lasting.
* All views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the views and opinions of any organisation with which I am affiliated.
i) 公益財団法人 日本生産性本部. “第 4 回 働く人の意識に関する調査.” Japan Productivity Center, 22 Jan. 2021, www.jpc-net.jp/research/assets/pdf/4th_workers_report.pdf.
ii) 内閣府 政策統括官（経済社会システム担当）. “第2回 新型コロナウイルス感染症の影響下における 生活意識・行動の変化に関する調査.” Https://Www.cao.go.jp/, 24 Dec. 2020, www5.cao.go.jp/keizai2/manzoku/pdf/result2_covid.pdf.
iii) “｢在宅勤務制度がある会社｣主要550社リスト: 就職四季報プラスワン.” 東洋経済オンライン, 29 Feb. 2020, toyokeizai.net/articles/-/333710?page=2.
iv) “90% Of 126 Major Japan Firms Intend to Continue Telework after Pandemic: Mainichi Survey.” The Mainichi, mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210203/p2a/00m/0li/036000c.
v) Person. “野村ＨＤ社長、最低出社４割など検討－コロナ後見据え働き方改革.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 1 Dec. 2020, www.bloomberg.co.jp/news/articles/2020-12-01/QKMX04T0G1NJ01.
vi) “Https://Www.nomura.co.jp/Introduc/News/2021/Pdf/WFHratio.pdf.” Nomura Securities Co., Ltd., 23 June 2021, www.nomura.co.jp/introduc/news/2021/pdf/WFHratio.pdf.
vii) 日経ビジネス電子版 . “在宅勤務の落とし穴、「リモハラ」最前線.” 日経ビジネス電子版, business.nikkei.com/atcl/gen/19/00246/.
viii) Murakami, Sakura. “Tokyo Olympics Chief Retracts Sexist Comments, Refuses to Resign.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 4 Feb. 2021, www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-2020-mori-idUSKBN2A407J.
ix) Kobayashi, Yusuke. “New Legislation on ‘Power Harassment’ in Japan.” Https://Www.pwc.com/, Sept. 2019, www.pwc.com/jp/en/legal/news/assets/legal-20190927-en.pdf.
x) “「コロナ保険」相次ぎ投入 「リモハラ」もカバー―大手損保：時事ドットコム.” 時事ドットコム, 12 Sept. 2020, www.jiji.com/jc/article?k=2020091200186&g=eco.