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Japan's telework rate still far from 70% target during state of emergency

This Nov. 4, 2020 file photo shows an office in Tokyo's Minato Ward, left nearly empty because most of the employees are working remotely. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- The ratio of Japanese employees working remotely has stagnated, despite Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's April 23 call on people to telework to help cut the number of people heading out to their jobs by 70% amid a fourth coronavirus wave.

    The request was made at the same press conference where the prime minister announced a third coronavirus state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures starting on April 25. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare also revised its telecommuting implementation guidelines in March to improve working environments.

    The Japan Productivity Center has been tracking the telework rate among Japan's workforce since May 2020, when it stood at 31.5%. That dropped to 20.2% by July, and has been hovering around 20% ever since. Even in January this year, just before the second state of emergency was declared, the telework rate remained unchanged at 22%. In April, it was 19.2%.

    "The telework rate has had nothing to do with the status of infections since the first declaration was lifted," a center representative said

    According to a survey of companies by Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd., the telework rate, which was about 25% in the survey carried out before the first state of emergency was declared in April 2020, increased to about 56% from late that month to early May. However, after the declaration was lifted, more than 20% of the companies said they "had implemented (teleworking) once, but canceled it." Since July, the ratio of companies that answered that they are implementing telework has remained in the 30% range.

    Behind the stagnated telework rate appears to be that both employers and employees have noticed problems with the system. According to the results of a private think tank fact-finding survey presented at a labor ministry review meeting, issues mentioned by respondents included "difficulty in communication between employees," and "a feeling of unfairness among employees who cannot work remotely."

    The labor ministry completely revised its telecommuting guidelines to answer the concern of both employees and employers, and hopes to grow the teleworking rate by presenting the guidelines as "a template for implementing high-quality telework."

    Furthermore, while a senior labor ministry official stated that "the government is not supposed to direct" private-sector employee evaluations, the guidelines clearly stated that it is inappropriate to give a person a low rating for not responding to emails on holidays or after working hours, or a high rating for working in the office. They also warn companies to be careful to prevent employees at the office from having to do more than those working from home.

    The guidelines go on to state that "it is desirable to give special consideration" to new employees and newly arrived transfers "for smoother communication."

    The guidelines furthermore state that, in principle, it is necessary to keep objective work hour records, such as by tracking how long employees use their laptops. But they also state that workers should be able to self-report. They go on to state that "it is acceptable for employers to know, or not know," when employees step out for a while during the workday.

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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