Apr. 19, 2022
With Covid-19, telework rapidly became commonplace among white-collar workers in Japan. According to a survey by Nomura Research Institute (NRI) *1 , the percentage of full-time employees who were engaged in telework as of September 2021 was about 32% nationwide, and when the scope is limited to the Kanto region, with its many large cities, this percentage rises to about 45%.
Since the state of emergency was completely lifted at the end of October 2021, various developments toward a post-Covid era have begun to accelerate in Japan, and there is a noticeable sense that passengers are coming back to morning and evening commuter trains (at the time of writing in December 2021). It is undeniable that people have begun to return to the office as working styles, which have been centered on telework to prevent the spread of infection, have begun to change. We are witnessing Japanese companies seeking ways to restore normality to the economy by returning white-collar work to being mostly in-office.
The changing purpose and essence of telework
What is the situation in the United States, which has embarked down the path back to economic normality ahead of Japan? “We continue to believe that the office is central to our work,” said the CEO of Goldman Sachs, which is based on the east coast, in an interview with a French newspaper. “It’s a creative industry, and it’s based on teams working together. Junior bankers learn their jobs by watching their seniors.” *2 There is a recognition that OJT is absolutely necessary for BtoB companies, and it is difficult to pass on know-how solely through telework.
Meanwhile, on the west coast, Google is allowing some employees to work from home permanently, while adding more offices to create a hybrid work style combining online and in-person work.
In this way, people are looking for new ways of working overseas as well, but when we look at the post-Covid era, what will happen to white-collar work in Japan?
Until now, telework has merely tried to reproduce online what had been done in offline spaces, and that cannot exceed current productivity. There may be a determination that telework will be stopped if productivity does not change, but that will definitely reduce ES (employee satisfaction).
According to the NRI survey results mentioned in the opening of this article, 90% of those who have experienced telework want to continue working remotely going forward. If telework is not adopted, there may be an outflow of excellent human resources.
Under these circumstances, Japanese companies seem to be unable to stop the teleworking that they have started. However, its purpose and essence will change. Telework as a measure to prevent the spread of infection until now will become something that utilizes digital technology more than ever to increase employee productivity.
What has changed the most in working styles as a result of the proliferation of telework is the way meetings are conducted. Remote meetings using Zoom and the like have become commonplace. In addition, from now on, it will be possible to hold remote but three-dimensional meetings by utilizing AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) technologies.
All meeting data will then become digitized. Since the digital data of when, with whom, and how many people participated in a meeting remains, the working style can be visualized. Meeting content could also be recorded automatically. It then becomes possible to set KPIs for the task of meetings, which are often pointed out as being wasteful, thus making possible to measure productivity and analyze the correlation with personal performance. By utilizing digital technology in this way, companies will be able to achieve more productive telework.
What is required for working styles that utilize digital technology
However, there are also problems with working styles that utilize digital technology. If you only engage in remote communication centered on telework and Zoom, it becomes difficult to build new relationships, and the reality is that the mentality of employees who have just joined the company will be affected. The most important thing is to grasp the true state of working styles and go on reforming them. Now is the time for work style reform that considers the balance between in-person and remote work.
However, these are problems of the last few years, and if we look ahead 10 years, the situation will change. For example, today’s elementary and junior high school students have already experienced online lessons. In things like social games, they are playing competitive games with far-away people whom they have never met. This generation is able to form relationships in a mixed online and offline environment from the very beginning. The concerns that people have today about the balance between in-person and remote work may ultimately prove unfounded. Further, the fact that digital technology reduces restrictions on where work is done also means that Japanese society will become even more borderless. Japan has the lowest income and living costs among developed countries. If it becomes possible to work for a company in a high-income country while living in Japan, which is safe and has a low cost of living, the shortage of human resources for Japanese companies will become even more serious. To prevent this from happening, digital technology should be used more as a tool to increase productivity.
It is likely that the work styles of the future utilizing digital technology will be unimaginably different from the present.
- 1 Nomura Research Institute “Survey on Telework During Covid-19”, September 2021.
- 2 Bloomberg article, July 2, 2021.