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With social distancing being one of the most effective ways of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, working from home has suddenly become the norm. For some, it is a new experience. For others, it has been part of their routine for a long time. In my case, I worked from home exclusively for more than a decade, and during that time saw my kids through school. Luckily, I have a full studio in my house, separate from the living areas. But not everyone has such facilities—especially here in Japan, where space is at a premium.

To find out how others are adjusting to the self-isolation and teleworking brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, I spoke with Yuka Nakamura, vice-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Kansai Chapter’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Nakamura is senior brand manager in marketing at ACCJ President’s Circle member company Eli Lilly Japan, K.K. and was named the 2019 ACCJ Leader of the Year for Kansai in recognition of her work organizing the annual Women in Business Summit. Like many women now teleworking, she is balancing the needs of family and kids with work while everyone is spending entire days together.

“Working from home is not new to me,” Nakamura said. “I’ve been doing this for quite a long time, especially since I work with a global team. What is new, however, is that the kids are home all the time.”

While her children are old enough to keep themselves occupied—one in junior high and the other in high school—being home all day creates certain expectations for family routines.

“Before, it was only me, so I could eat lunch whenever I wanted. But now I have to fix lunch around noon, or at a certain time,” she explained. “Sometimes I have lunchtime meetings, or back-to-back-to-back meetings that run through the whole day. So that’s one challenge.”

Overcoming this takes understanding on the part of the family, and also remembering that you can’t do it all—and that’s okay. “Don’t try to do everything by yourself,” she advised. “When it comes to meals, sometimes eat frozen food or leftovers. That’s still good. And it’s not forever, it’s only for now. Be flexible and you can make it work.”

Nakamura said that Lilly is extremely supportive, not only with work-from-home policies that were already in place well before Covid-19 but also with technical and emotional support.

“They’re very supportive, from the high, senior-management level through to the working level. It’s our culture. We receive very frequent update emails from senior management, such as the global president and the Japan president. They give us very transparent updates as well as clear guidelines and priorities,” she said. “What I appreciated the most is that my big boss made it very clear that the first priority is the health and well-being of each person and the team.”

Another thing that Nakamura finds helpful during this time of social distancing is the culture that exists at the team level. “Everybody is really encouraging each other to stay motivated and connected. We’ve started having virtual coffee. That’s working quite well. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, we just grab coffee and have a quick chat about how things are going. We have this culture that, even though we are all working from home, we’re still one team.”

Maintaining reliable and secure IT operations is a big job in any office setting and becomes more challenging when that controlled environment shifts to the cloud. But it is something Lilly has extensive experience with, and Nakamura feels at ease with the technical support.

“Even before this happened, most full-time employees had a Wi-Fi router that could be used everywhere around the globe. And we already had meeting platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Cisco’s Webex,” she explained.

“And most full-time employees have a company phone, so we can use it when­ever we need to talk. We also have a VPN system for going into internal folders over the cloud. We have no technical issues.”

She said that the IT team has also expanded their support across channels and are on standby 24/7 on weekdays for calls and chat. “If I do have a technical issue, I can just contact them and get support. That’s one big thing that enables me to work from home efficiently.”

Of course, technical solutions are only one part of successfully working from home. As parents try to stay productive while also creating comfortable environments for their children, clear communication is important. Nakamura shared a story from a friend who has small children.

“My friend had to find a way to manage kids coming into the room while she was working. So, she came up with the idea of putting a sign on the door that is colored green, red, or yellow. When she’s on a very important conference call and cannot be disturbed, she puts the red sign on her door. If it’s best to leave her alone unless the matter is urgent, she puts up the yellow sign. And if coming in is fine, the green one is up. This way, the kids easily know if it’s not a good time.”

Nakamura also has three tips for making your work environment better:

  • A nice chair
  • A good display
  • Bluetooth earbuds

“I wanted a nice office chair, which I don’t have yet, but because I recently started to feel pain in my back, I’m planning to buy one. It’s important to be comfortable sitting for long hours,” she said.

“Another important thing is the monitor. It helps a lot to have an external one because working on the laptop for a long time makes my eyes really tired.”

And the last tip, getting a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, makes taking part in online meetings easier. “When you have back-to-back meetings, sometimes you need to move around a little, but you don’t want to miss the discussion.” You’ll sound better and can stay engaged with the conversation.

We often talk about the challenges of working from home—especially with kids in the house—and it is easy to see it as a series of obstacles to overcome. But there are benefits as well, and the experience can strengthen families.

“On the bright side, I can spend more time with my kids, which is a happy thing. I can always get to see them and can have lunch with them every day,” Nakamura said. “And when it comes to keeping track of their studies and homework, I can know better what they’re working on.”

She said movie nights are more frequent as well since time isn’t being spent commuting. “Because we’re at home every night, we can watch Amazon Prime and Netflix and all these. It’s fun that we can talk about the movies and share some snacks. It’s fun family time.”

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.
Don’t try to do everything by yourself . . . be flexible and you can make it work.