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90% of 126 major Japan firms intend to continue telework after pandemic: Mainichi survey

The questionnaire, to which about 90% of companies responded by saying that they "plan to continue" telework even after the spread of coronavirus infections is under control, is seen in this Jan. 6, 2021, photo. (Mainichi/Natsuko Ishida)

TOKYO -- Some 90% of companies currently using telework systems want to continue doing so even after the virus is brought under control, according to the results of a Mainichi Shimbun survey conducted on 126 major Japanese companies.

    But issues remain over methods of implementation -- such as how to balance working hours and health -- and workers and management are continuing to search for solutions. The Japanese government is drafting various rules to improve the environment for teleworking.

    "It's tiring, because it's hard to switch on and off at home. I concentrate better when I go to the office," said one woman in her 30s employed as a clerical worker at a major manufacturer in Tokyo. She currently works from home three days a week per company policy, and lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment that has a kitchen but no space for a desk and chair.

    Her monthly overtime hours are capped by company rules, but during busy periods she exceeds the limit. In those cases, she uses a web-based time recording system to set longer break times and report less overtime. Her reduced weekly commuting time, which takes 30 minutes one way, is one benefit of teleworking, but she feels she has fewer opportunities to come up with new ideas because it is difficult to consult with colleagues on the little things.

    How widespread is teleworking? In October 2020, the Mainichi Shimbun conducted a survey of 126 major companies in Japan. Of the 114 that responded, 113 had already instituted teleworking, and the one company that had not yet done so answered that it was "considering" it.

    When asked about the percentage of teleworking employees, 57% of the companies (65 firms) said it was "less than 10%" before the spread of coronavirus infections, but after the outbreak expanded in April last year, 70% (80 companies) had more than 50% of their employees working remotely.

    When asked if they would like to have their employees continue teleworking after the infection is contained, 106 companies, or about 90% of the 114 companies, expressed their intention to preserve the work pattern.

    Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co., a major insurance company, said in the survey, "Toward putting new ways of working into practice, teleworking is being implemented as much as possible on the premise of performing normal levels of work."

    One major automobile company implemented telework for 50% of its clerical staff. The company has set a goal of 20% for after the pandemic ends. One company said it would not continue the practice, citing reasons such as a "lack of easy communication or necessary devices." Seven companies did not respond to the question.

    The survey shows that companies are also in a state of uncertainty. One of the most common challenges cited by firms was how to monitor and manage employees' working hours while teleworking. According to the Labor Standards Law, working hours are, in principle, eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. Companies must deal with employees' time off and work hours as completely separate. If a company forces employees to work longer hours than agreed upon without their knowledge, they may be in violation of the law. One major oil company is calling for more understanding from employees, saying, "Individual employees need to manage their time more autonomously."

    When asked about actual time management methods, 106 companies (93%) used e-mail, work reports, and web-based work management systems to keep track. Two companies did not keep track of working hours. One major machinery company prohibited overtime work during telework in principle.

    It is also difficult for a company to get a practical sense of the circumstances of employees working remotely. Tokio Marine & Nichido expressed concern that "it is impossible to confirm the real status of work." With the possibility that employees may report an operating status that differs from reality, one respondent in the financial services industry said, "Continuous monitoring is necessary to ensure there is no fraudulent work registration."

    In response to this situation on the part of companies, a report compiled at the end of 2020 by an expert panel of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare called for teleworking time management to be simplified. Since work is done where people live, there is a tendency for people to take "temporary off time" for housework and other tasks in addition to their breaks.

    Specifically, the guidelines will be revised so that companies will only need to know at least the start and end times of work. It will also make clear that companies will not be held liable under the Labor Standards Act if they do not know if self-reported working hours are different from actual hours. This requires companies to confirm the hours of work to some extent through computer log-in times or other means. If an employee were to under-report their overtime hours but the company didn't know about the issue, the firm can avoid being reprimanded by the Labor Standards Bureau for unpaid overtime.

    It has been pointed out that working at home tends to lead to long working hours because there are few factors delineating time, such as an office's closing time or the first and last train to work. A company in the electricity and gas industry said, "As there is no commuting time, the boundaries between work and home are vague, and people tend to continue working endlessly."

    Elsewhere, Bridgestone Corp. said, "Employees could get a sense of an atmosphere conducive to leaving work when the office announcements were broadcast before the end of the workday and other employees went home, but teleworking tends to lead to long hours."

    In Japan, "membership-type employment," in which a person is hired and then assigned a section, is the norm. But in telework, members work at different locations, so there are also signs of change in the way employees are hired.

    In April 2020, companies began to apply the equal pay for equal work rule, which aims to correct disparities between regular and non-regular employees, and there may be further moves to introduce "job-based employment" in which people are hired with clear job descriptions, and "job-based pay," in which salaries are determined by job descriptions.

    Twenty-eight companies (25%) responded that they were "considering" introducing this "job-based employment," including for purposes other than responding to the coronavirus crisis, and 15 companies (13%) had already introduced it. One major oil wholesaler said, "Telework is highly compatible with a job-based personnel system. It will be a means to promote a more results-oriented and autonomous work style."

    Toyo Engineering Corp. aims to implement the system in fiscal 2021 for management positions. Daiwa House Industry Co. responded that "specific details are still under consideration," but added that "it is necessary to develop independent and autonomous employees through a transition to a job-based personnel system."

    Meanwhile, several companies responded negatively to the introduction of the new system, including Mazda Motor Corp., which said, "Since most of our work involves producing output in an organization or team, we do not think that an employment system with clearly defined roles for each job is suitable."

    In the report compiled by the health ministry panel last year, difficulties understanding each employee's abilities and the progress of their work due to the characteristics of teleworking were cited as one issue. For this reason, it stressed the importance of setting specific rules for personnel assessment and providing workers with concrete information on the purpose and methods of evaluation. The ministry will compile new work guidelines for both labor and management by the end of this fiscal year.

    The National Tax Agency also announced new guidelines for companies on Jan. 15, including exempting from income tax half of internet access costs on days worked from home. The decision has been made because it is difficult to distinguish between private and business use of communication expenses. The agency also clarified the taxation criteria for teleworking allowances and for provisions of necessary office supplies such as computers. The government is determined to encourage teleworking uptake, including through taxation.

    Ryo Hosokawa, a professor in labor law at Aoyama Gakuin University, said, "Teleworking is expected to take root in the future. However, in principle, workers are not obligated to telework, and companies should obtain their consent. Also, since teleworking tends to lead to long working hours, overtime work should be banned or set until certain times, so that there is a clear delineation between work and personal life."

    He added, "If a company does not know whether its employees are being overworked, it is not only undesirable from the perspective of overtime payment, but also from a health management view. It is essential to improve supervisors' management skills, including personnel evaluation."

    (Japanese original by Natsuko Ishida and Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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