Working From Home in Japan: Part 1

7 unique challenges when facilitating WFH setups in Japan

Written by Ali Fenwick & Christian Wolfer

Introduction

Images of hotel concierge robots, high-tech toilets, and frantic neon lights give the feeling that Japan is a hyper modern society. In many ways it is, but Japan is also known for its strong rooting in traditions. Japan is a country that balances itself between what is the past and what is the future and sometimes it finds itself being caught between these two perspectives, which can be challenging when having to adopt new ways. One specific area many Japanese currently have to adjust to is Working From Home (WFH). The Covid-19 situation has demanded that people work from home as much as possible to prevent the further spread of the virus. WFH, otherwise known in Japan as terewāku’ (teleworking), is a business practice which is not very common in Japan. According to data from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs, last year a mere 19% of Japanese companies facilitated WFH setups. So, why are so few Japanese companies making remote work possible?

When investigating WFH in Japan, it quickly becomes clear that technology is not the only issue why companies haven’t massively adopted remote work policies. It seems that long standing business practices, work attitudes and beliefs about remote work, organizational culture, and personal space also play a major role in accepting WFH as a common work practice. To address these issues, a multi-faceted approach is needed, which in a normal situation would be hard to realize. However, the global pandemic has changed the rules of the game and propelled organizations around the world to rethink their strategy, including those who have been resistant to change.

This article is the first of two articles we will publish on WFH in Japan. In this first piece, we will focus on the unique challenges Japan faces with WFH amid the pandemic (and beyond). In our next piece, we will explore some of the potential solutions Japanese organizations should consider implementing to increase WFH effectiveness as well as modernizing the Japanese workforce and preparing for the future work.

Challenge 1: Technical Infrastructure

Having one of the fastest broadband connections in the world, you would expect Japan to have no issues switching to a remote work setup. However, broadband internet speed is but one of many tech requirements. Having the appropriate hardware and software are also a necessity to WFH. And this is not just an employee problem. Many Japanese companies don’t have the right IT infrastructure in place to be able to facilitate WFH setups. A recent study conducted by the Japanese government found that almost all companies and approximately one third of households in Japan still use fax machines as a communication tool. The use of faxes and other legacy systems makes it difficult to facilitate WFH setups.

Another important point to mention in terms of technical requirements is IT security. Japanese businesses in general are overly sensitive about customer data. So much so, that many organizations have strict IT protocols in place that prevent the usage of cloud-based services such as Dropbox and Google Drive. The perception of these services is that they are not safe. Physical document filing is therefore still a common practice in many Japanese companies; and if digitized, would only be stored on internal servers which cannot be accessed from the outside. A study conducted this March by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism highlighted that not being able to access company data (26.8%) was by far the biggest issue why implementing WFH setups was difficult to do. The survey also highlighted communication difficulties with colleagues or managers (9.7%) and business partners (9.2%), and an unclear working system (9.6%) as major barriers to WFH implementation.

Challenge 2: Work attitudes toward remote work

However, the biggest challenge in creating and facilitating effective WFH setups in Japan is not of a technical nature. Rather it is psychological, more specifically, management thinking and business culture which makes WFH difficult in Japan. In the mind of the average Japanese manager, working remotely is perceived as something negative. Having lots of face-to-face time with colleagues and being present in the office are crucial to maintaining 'social harmony' (or ‘wa’ in Japanese) at work. Many Japanese bosses believe that 'If you work from home, you’re resting and not spending time with the customer'. Employees are also made to feel guilty about WFH as their 'absence' burdens other employees. This mindset makes it hard for Japanese employees to work remotely, and if they are, they would not feel comfortable about it. Being present in the office is crucial in Japanese business culture as that is ' where the work happens’. Employee evaluation is often done on the basis of how many hours your boss ‘sees’ you working and how busy you seem to others. In other words, your performance review is highly dependent on how visible you are to your superiors.

This management paradigm is not exclusive to Japan. In the Western business culture, despite numerous companies having remote work policies in place, there are still a lot of managers who have a problem with not having their direct reports within sight. They often believe that “If I can’t see you, I can’t trust you”, which has proven to a be a problem for many workers during this pandemic. In Japan, WFH is perceived as wanting to work more by oneself which is seen as going against the group, even though sufficient research — and now the situation with Covid-19 — has shown that remote work setups improve employee productivity. Busyness in Japan, it seems, is more important than efficiency or productivity as it helps to facilitate group processes, attitudes, and existing business rituals, resulting in a major issue preventing a widespread acceptance of WFH in Japan.

A study surveying over 20.000 workers from various industries conducted this March by Persol, a renowned HR company in Japan, found that the biggest challenge of WFH was not having adequate people management or work policies in place that make WFH possible. 70% of the respondents also reported that their company did not effectively respond to WFH demands when requested. Important to mention here is that requesting to work from home is not an easy thing to do in most Japanese companies. Japanese businesspeople are taught to exercise the concept ofenryo’, which means “to hold back” or refraining oneself from unnecessary requests. Even if home office is offered by a manager many employees would refuse it, fearing repercusions for ‘not holding back’ which could affect an employee’s bonus or prospects of promotion. This is why the role of leadership is so important to change the existing management thinking and attitudes toward remote work. Without top leadership support or major labor reforms, organizational changes won’t take place.

Challenge 3: Face-to-face contact is paramount

Japan is a high-context country. This means that non-verbal communication and environmental cues play a major role in effective communication and social interaction in Japanese society. Besides words, more emphasis is placed on facial expressions and contextual cues (e.g. sitting arrangements) to help deliver the message. Research shows that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Japan being a high-context and collectivistic environment means that non-verbal communication is an important part of communicating effectively. Picking up on these subtleties in conversations and during open office socialization is critical to help understand what is going on. This is often referred to as ‘kuuki wo yomu’ in Japanese, which literally means to ‘read the air’. When WFH, using virtual communication conferencing tools like Zoom or Teams makes it challenging to read the air as most such tools are fairly low context by design and as of yet can’t provide the same richness as face-to-face communication does. This means that virtual communication is subject to noise which can affect how certain messages are delivered.

Another characteristic of high-context cultures is the need to build strong long-lasting social connections. In Japanese culture, group socialization plays a central role in organizational life and organizational sense-making. Spending time together in the office is not sufficient to build lasting relationships. After work get-togethers, often referred to as nomikai’, ‘after-five’, and enkai’, help employees build strong relationships with both co-workers and customers, which in turn fosters social harmony. Moreover, after-work socialization is also important for group decision-making and consensus building in Japanese business culture, as many discussions and plans are concluded during dinner and lively karaoke nights. These kinds of socialization practices are hard to continue or replicate when WFH. Yet, brewing companies Suntory and Kirin are trying to promote virtual ‘after-fives’ during this pandemic to keep socialization practices in place, understanding the importance it has in Japanese business culture.

Challenge 4: Evaluation systems

As mentioned in challenge 2 (work attitudes), a drawback of Japanese business practices in terms of work productivity and evaluation is the fact that busyness and the way work is done, instead of output, are key employee performance evaluation metrics. This allows for manager subjectivity and discretion to be a deciding factor in employee performance reviews. It is not a surprise then, that out of all the G7 industrialized countries, Japan scores the lowest on worker productivity. WFH requires a different way of evaluation, focusing more on performance and output quality than busyness. Moreover, developing productivity apps which focus more on monitoring than on actual performance could be damaging to both employee moral as well as job commitment.

Challenge 5: Hō-Ren-Sō

Something that defines communication between Japanese managers and their subordinates is the principle of Hō-Ren-Sō, an acronym which means report-inform-consult. This allows for little autonomy on the employee’s side as employees are expected to consult with their managers on most, if not all, decisions. While this may work when everyone is together in the office, it is not a seamless task when WFH and it is bound to cause inefficiencies in remote work setups.

Challenge 6: The Ritual of ‘Inkan’

In Western business practice, it’s mainly business owners or directors who have the right to sign off on documents for approval. However, in Japanese business there is a strong checking and approval culture throughout the organization which requires everyone to sign off on documents. Instead of merely signing official documents, the Japanese need to sign off on every step of the work process. However, ‘approval signing’ is not done with a signature in Japan, rather the Japanese use a personal stamp called a ‘hanko’. The use of the hanko dates back to the 19th century and till today plays an important role in Japanese business and society. For example, you can’t open a bank account in Japan without having your own official stamp. Although digital hankos exist and are the preferred way of signing off on things in high-tech companies like Line, most Japanese companies still use the traditional stamp to sign off on documents which requires one's physical presence.

Challenge 7: Personal Space

Personal space in Japan is a scarce resource. Similar to places like Hong Kong, Japanese apartments are relatively small. The average size of an apartment in Tokyo is around 43 square meters. This leaves very little room for setting up a dedicated workspace at home. Also, real estate prices are considerably high, so finding a bigger space to accommodate WFH (e.g. having a separate room to work in) would be a costly matter, unless employees choose to live outside of the city.

Besides issues related to physical space, WFH in Japan also impacts family dynamics. Traditionally, family members have strongly defined gender roles in Japanese society. The husband is seen as the ‘breadwinner’, bringing in the money, and the wife is seen as the ‘housekeeper‘, taking care of practically everything else related to the family situation, such as child rearing and managing the household income. Social pressure to adhere to these stereotypical roles in Japanese society has resulted in married couples being used to spending a lot of time away from each other (taking care of ‘societal tasks’ independently). Due to the pandemic, families have had to spend long periods of time together, which is highly unusual in Japan. This is a potential stress factor for many Japanese couples and requires personal adjustment if WFH is to succeed in the long run. In China, where family dynamics are somewhat similar to the Japanese, the lockdown was a major cause of marital stress, which led to an increase in domestic violence and a high number of divorces once the lockdown was lifted. Though it is a trend seen also in other countries outside of Asia, it is important to consider the impact WFH has on family dynamics especially if ‘being together’ is not always seen as a virtue.

Conclusion

Its clear from this analysis that there is not a one-size-fits all when it comes to designing and implementing WFH policies. The case of Japan clearly provides unique challenges that need to be dealt with if WFH is to happen effectively, especially in the long run. Cultural complexities, existing business rituals, work attitudes and beliefs, and IT infrastructure (support) deficiencies form the biggest barriers to transitioning to effective WFH setups. HR and people management policies need to consider the benefits that WFH offers and weigh them against the required adaptations that need to be made from both a technical as well as a psychological and cultural perspective. One thing is for sure: WFH is here to stay and Japan is no exception to the rule. So, what needs to be changed today and how to re-design HR policies in Japanese companies to facilitate WFH setups moving forward? We will delve deeper into the solution part in our next article!

More in Part 2 — coming soon!

About the Authors

Ali Fenwick, Ph.D.

Ali Fenwick, Ph.D. is a professor, keynote speaker, behavioral expert on tv, strategic advisor, and author. Ali specializes in human behavior, the future of work, and technology. Ali is also the Founder and CEO of LEAD TCM&L™, a global behavioral science advisory firm developing nudges and psychological interventions for Business, Education, Government, and NGOs. Ali has lived in Japan, speaks Japanese, and worked with Japanese companies for more than 20 years.

Christian Wolfer

Christian is an organizational development expert living in Tokyo (Japan) since 2017. He specializes in workplace development in Japanese organizations. Christian is also a director of a human rights advocacy group in Japan, where he mentors, coaches, and speaks on the topics of gender equality and social justice. Christian speaks several languages fluently, including Japanese.

Ali Fenwick, Ph.D. is a professor, keynote speaker, strategic advisor, and author. Dr. Fenwick specializes in human behavior, the future of work and technology.