Turning the tanker: Japan starts to adopt a flexible work style

Japanese companies struggled to break a culture of rigid conformity before the pandemic. Now the future is hybrid according to a new real-estate report, even if its precise form has still to be decided

More than two years on from the start of the global pandemic, the once-unbending Japanese workplace is showing clear signs of adopting a more flexible workstyle. But as yet there is no consensus among Japanese employers on what is the optimal form of hybrid work and how best to maximise its benefits.

That is the verdict of a new research report from Tokyo’s Xymax Real Estate Institute, which conducted a survey of companies located across Japan, including Tokuyo, Fukuoka, Chiba, Osaka and other prefectures, in autumn 2021.

The company survey was combined with the findings with a study of office workers in the Greater Tokyo region and the result of an in-house questionnaire within Xymax itself, creating a picture of cultural change in which the relative merits of remote work (described as ‘telework’ in Japan) and a return to the office are being widely discussed.

A record high

More than two thirds of Japanese companies (68.5 per cent) and two thirds of workers (67.3 per cent) have adopted teleworking, according to the Xymax report. This is unprecedented in Japan and a record high. However, the current form of telework is almost completely work from home.

Only a quarter of Japanese workers open to the idea of teleworking want to do so five days a week. Six out of ten want to telework for an equivalent of two-to-four days a week, indicating that a majority of employees preferred hybrid work, which combines coming into the office and teleworking from elsewhere.

Diversity of settings

In the company survey, a larger percentage of companies that also used a satellite office replied that the performance of their employees improved from before the pandemic compared to companies that only adopted work from home.

The internal survey at Xymax also suggested that workers’ productivity when working in the head office might improve by using a diverse range of workplaces compared to when working only in the head office and at home. These results support the adoption of corporate strategies that promote a polycentric rather than monocentric approach to the future of work in Japan, incorporating many centres.

Rise in performance

The Xymax study found that a telework frequency of three days a week or more results in a greater probability of improvement in performance and engagement. But while the probability of an increase in performance rises as the frequency of telework increases, the probability of improvement in engagement does not rise even if the telework frequency increases to four days a week or more.

This means that while performance improves as workers approach a fully remote work style, engagement may drop compared to when the telework frequency is an equivalent of three days a week. This implies the possibility that the ideal telework frequency when focusing on improvement in engagement is the equivalent of three days a week.

The picture is further complicated because the telework frequency that results in greater performance varies between job categories. For example, the probability of performance improvement tends to rise when the telework frequency is an equivalent of four days a week for clerical and corporate jobs, and an equivalent of five days a week for specialised and sales jobs.

Telework takes root

In summary, teleworking is now taking root in Japan as a standard work style, according to Xymax’s research. There is a good chance, says the report, of reduced commuting to city centres even once the number of coronavirus infections have dropped to almost zero.

The pandemic has managed to trigger change in the notoriously inflexible Japanese workplace but, even if the need for flexibility is no longer in doubt, there are still questions over how best to make hybrid happen and some way to go to giving Japanese workers more choice and diversity of settings. Read the full Xymax topic report ‘Exploring the Optimal Form of Hybrid Work’ here.

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