The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Instead of the red light, green light transition we might hope for coming out of the state of emergency, we face a potentially very protracted period of caution. And while this go-slow period will pose new challenges, it may help us avoid squandering the opportunity we’ve been afforded by these unusual circumstances.

Simply flipping a switch and returning to normal would make it all too easy to stumble backwards and lose the forced progress that’s been made in teleworking and workstyle reform. Valuable lessons about maintaining resiliency in a market where business interruptions are a regular and expected occurrence could also fall by the wayside.

It’s up to us as business leaders to ensure that the legacy of Covid-19 is more than just human suffering and economic loss.

Around the world—and especially here in Japan—the corona­virus experience has the potential to spur revolutionary change in the way people live and work.

As companies awaken to the surprise that, unexpectedly—perhaps even improbably—they’ve been able to function without staff coming into the office each day, some may begin to imagine a new way forward.

And as governments begin to recover from the challenge of pro­viding public services from a distance, some may decide that it is preferable to accelerate down the path of digitization rather than retreat.

But if you’re wondering whether businesses in Japan will embrace teleworking in a post-Covid-19 world, now that technology has proven that it’s possible, consider this: during the Covid-19 crisis, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and even some restaurants with private rooms have been offering day-use packages for teleworkers who can’t function or find peace and space to work at home. And they’re often sold out.

If this revolution is to succeed, it probably won’t come from simply injecting Western concepts into Japanese businesses. Teleworking has become so ingrained in Western business culture that we grapple with challenges on the other end of the spectrum: how to turn off and achieve work–life balance in an always-on world.

In Japanese culture, people have a very different relationship with home and work, and the spaces in between. Simply making technologies available won’t change the attitudes and beliefs that drive work culture and practices. And technology won’t, in itself, solve the very practical problem of having no space for an office in most Japanese homes.

We need to find a uniquely Japanese way forward, weaving tech­­nology and culture together to make workplace reform and digitization acceptable and appealing, not just possible. We need to improve in-home Wi-Fi at the same time that we’re making it socially acceptable not to put on a suit and take the train each morning. Instead of trying to change the Japanese preference for close management supervision and group-based decision-making, we need to use technology to enable both—but from a distance.

We need to seek hybrid solutions that can support Japanese business traditions rather than replace them, and use technology where it makes sense while preserving traditions that play important cultural roles. So while a switch to digital hanko (personal stamps) is highly likely, it’s hard to imagine how a videoconference could effectively replicate the hierarchy-breaking interactions that happen in group get-togethers outside the office.

In a post Covid-19 Japan, it would be as great a mistake to return to the previous ways of working as it would be to assume technology’s proven ability to facilitate remote work will automatically lead to lasting workstyle reform.

As business leaders, we can help determine whether the Covid-19 legacy is entirely negative or leads to a better tomorrow. Let’s challenge ourselves, as an international business community, to find a way forward that’s uniquely appropriate to Japan.

Peter Fitzgerald is
ACCJ President.
We need to seek hybrid solutions that can support Japanese business traditions rather than replace them.