The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Isolated at home, many of us have spent the past few months working on laptops in the bedroom and joining countless video calls. The big, sudden change thrust upon us as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has forced a rethink of how companies operate. One question being asked is: How productive are workers in the Covid-19 era? Among members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) involved in human resources, as well as other experts, the answers vary widely.

Industry, task, working conditions at home, equipment, speed of internet access, and even people’s personalities play a role in the effectiveness of remote work.

Researchers and software developers, for example, can do their work fairly easily from home. Some say they are even more productive compared with being at the office, because there are fewer interruptions—unless you have young children who don’t understand why mom or dad are glued to their screens for hours.

Other jobs and tasks, such as working on collaborative projects or dealing with personnel issues, can suffer from the lack of face-to-face interaction, undermining productivity and effectiveness.

On the plus side, not having to spend two or three hours each day commuting on crowded trains allows employees to devote more time and energy to their job during work hours and personal pursuits during off time. Many welcome the extra flexibility to take care of private tasks between work tasks, such as calling the doctor or cooking dinner between conference calls, creating a better work–life balance—something that is regularly talked about as a goal of the modern workplace. This has made some feel more productive about their life in general, and thus more motivated.

But others thrive on human interaction. Being isolated for weeks on end can cause them to begin feeling lethargic and uninspired, leading to lower productivity.

“Some people feel more energized and creative when around people,” said Nancy Ngou, an associate partner at EY Advisory and Consulting and ACCJ governor. “You can just recharge your energy by walking up to somebody and having a conversation. But when you’re working remotely, that’s much more difficult.”

A recent internal survey at EY shows that a majority of employees feel more productive working from home, but there are also those who feel less productive, Ngou said.

Still, despite the hurdles and adjustments, many employees have told her that the greater flexibility of working from home has made them feel “more productive throughout the day, instead of rushing the second you get home, starting to cook dinner or helping kids with homework.” For some, their life as a whole has felt more manageable. In addition to equipment, physical space and type of work, an important factor was whether this was the first time for the respondent to work remotely, she added. “If you are not accustomed to working from home, it may take time to find your most effective rhythm.”

Video conferencing platforms such as Google Meet, Cisco’s WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom have made it possible for business to continue during this unprecedented period of disruption. But while these tools have proved enormously helpful in connecting people, some workers feel they have made communication more difficult and work less efficient overall.

“Online meetings cannot exceed the productivity of face-to-face communication,” said Masayuki Morikawa, president of the government-linked Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI).

Initial surveys touching on produc­tivity show conflicting results. Morikawa polled the 80 or so employees at his Tokyo think tank. It is a small sample, but the results provide some clues. While workers felt more efficient as time progressed, on average they still felt less productive working from home than from the office, he found.

If they rated their office productivity at 100, their work-from-home productivity averaged 72 in May, up from 63 in April. Some respondents, mostly researchers, said they were more efficient at home, giving ratings as high as 150, Morikawa said. But clerical workers generally felt less productive at home, because they could not communicate as easily with colleagues, he said.

Morikawa predicts that, even in the best-case scenario, productivity at home for white collar workers will peak out at about 80 percent of office efficiency.

Many blue-collar jobs are hands-on, so working from home is not an option.

But the story is completely different for blue collar or service industry workers, he pointed out. For those with jobs in hotels, restaurants, factories, delivery services, and health-related fields, working from home is not an option. This means their work-from-home productivity would be near zero. It would also make them much more vulnerable to job loss, he added.

“You’re lucky you can work from home,” he said. Also, while Western expats may live in spacious apartments, most Japanese live in smaller homes where they may not have an extra room that can serve as a study. Families must share space, which is not conducive to concentration or conference calls.

Recent studies in the United States and Europe show that just 24–34 percent of jobs can be done at home, Morikawa said.

Covid-19 has, therefore, had an unequal impact on the global job market. “Higher paying jobs are relatively unaffected,” while lower-wage jobs have been hit harder.

These factors make Morikawa pessimistic about the future. Even as economies around the world re-open, it will likely be some time until we return to “normal” pre-pandemic life. Perhaps we never will. “Not only Japan’s, but every economy’s productivity will be reduced,” he warns.

Another broader study of more than 700 workers around the world con­ducted in May by US-based Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) suggests a more optimistic outlook. The results indicate that worker productivity held steady or may have risen when considering factors such as fewer interruptions, elimination of commuting time, and less need for office space. The survey found that 77 percent of respondents felt “fully productive” at home, and that people wasted less time on interruptions and distractions there (43 minutes) compared with the office (78 minutes).

GWA estimates that increased teleworking could save com­panies thousands of dollars per year by reducing the amount of office space needed, lowering commutation costs, offering additional productive work hours, and providing the ability to continue operations easily in times of disaster or epidemics.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly forced Japanese com­panies to quickly implement teleworking systems. According to a 2018 government survey, just 18 percent had such systems in place, lagging Western firms. But a recent poll by Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby, shows that 98 percent of its members had introduced teleworking capabilities, and that nearly three-quarters of workers had access to them.

It has also forced companies to change the way they do busi­­ness—internally and externally. Managers, for example, have had to learn a new set of skills to conduct video meetings successfully, said Joshua Bryan, director of human resources recruitment at Robert Walters Japan K.K., a recruiting company that specializes in connecting clients with bilingual candidates.

The company brought in an expert on virtual meetings to give tips, such as the need to call on individuals by name as opposed to open-ended questions, which often elicit silence. They also counseled managers “to be willing to show vulnerability and a bit of a mess during video calls, with family members or children in the background, and to be com­fortable with that,” Bryan said.

Team leaders have also made a special effort to have short video check-in calls that aren’t about work but, instead, are just to ask employees how they’re doing, Bryan said. For example, to talk about what they’re watching on TV or cooking for dinner. The goal is to replicate the lighter interactions people would normally have in the office.

The transition has gone smoothly for Robert Walters, which has more than 300 employees in Japan. Bryan attributes this to getting employees to work from home on a trial basis in late February, well before the state of emergency was declared. And worker productivity has remained steady—or even improved—over the past couple of months, he said.

Scattering people has also created obstacles in the Japanese business context, where teamwork and being physically together is important so that people can “read the air,” Morikawa said. Managers can more easily keep an eye on who’s doing what, and adjust work assignments accordingly, and employees can also pick up on what their colleagues are doing and offer help. All that has been largely removed by this emergency, and he suggests that this has undermined team cohesion and overall productivity.

Covid-19 has forced changes to the requirement of personal seals.

Another uniquely Japanese business practice that has come under pressure to change is the use of hanko or inkan (personal seals) to validate documents. Without these stamps, proposals often cannot move ahead, slowing productivity. Deutsche Bank Japan has begun requiring hanko on fewer documents and is consolidating stamping into a single day, at regular intervals, to make it more efficient, said Jiana Leung, who is head of human resources for Japan and APAC non-hub locations, as well as co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee.

Depending on their personalities and work habits, people have responded in very different ways to the need to telework. While some love working quietly at home, others miss the human contact, and can feel unmotivated or unfocused as a result.

Annie Chang, president of AC Global Solutions, a two-person business in Tokyo recruiting women for technology jobs, said she has always liked a clear distinction between her work and personal life. Even though her business is small, she got an office to share with her colleague and enjoys getting dressed for work and riding her bicycle to the office, because it puts her in a more disciplined and productive mindset.

“When I go home, I want to focus all my time on my family. I’m no longer president of the company, now I’m the mother,” she said. “That’s how I change my mindset. Now that’s hard to do because you’re in the same environment all the time. It’s also easy to work too many hours at home.”

So, working from home the past eight weeks has been hard for Chang, who is also vice-chair of the ACCJ Independent Business Leadership Committee. She has felt less focused and misses being in her cozy office, where she can chat with her colleague easily. “I love the human contact. I’m not a virtual person. I like to see the sparkle in people’s eyes,” Chang said. “I can’t be isolated. I can do Zoom and all that, but it’s just not the same.”

Bryan said managers at his com­pany had to learn to adjust their style depending on the person. “Some people, we found, just became more pro­ductive. They were able to con­centrate more. Personalities that were more introverted were able to gain more energy from the experience,” he said. “But those with less pro­fessional experience needed more structure to their days, and it had to be customized.”

Video conferencing will remain essential to business in the ”new normal.“

Given the hurdles of teleworking, employees generally have put extra effort into communicating with each other through video calls, messaging chats or emails, and that has helped to maintain productivity, said Leung at Deutsche Bank. The company has been investing in remote work technology for several years so, when the time came to work from home, the transition was relatively seamless, she added.

But handling all the additional communication can also eat up time and energy, allowing workers to devote less time to their main responsibilities.

To compensate for lost human interaction, Deutsche Bank has organized a virtual walkathon for employees in which people can sign up to run or walk a certain distance to raise funds for charity. They can exercise alone or in small groups. This is also a way to “give back to society” in recognition of many who are suffering job losses, she said.

Overall, this crisis has tested the ability of companies and individuals to adapt, and may have a winnowing effect, said Fusion Systems Group chief executive officer Mike Alfant, who is ACCJ president emeritus and also chairs the chamber’s Emergency Disaster Response Advisory Council. “This will expose their weaker areas and amplify their stronger areas,” he said. “The companies that survive will have adapted more readily to the newer environ­mental pressures.”

EY’s Ngou said: “Companies have been forced to push the envelope. The crisis has really challenged them on what can be done virtually or with staggered hours. You’ve really had to get creative for the sake of employee health.”

While telemedicine has been important during the pandemic, and will continue, healthcare remain largely an in-person job.

In the long term, the coronavirus outbreak may have initiated permanent changes in business practice—particularly allowing staff greater flexibility in working from home in the future, Leung and others said. In an internal survey, employees responded overwhelmingly that they would like to work from home at least one or two days a week, and would like to continue to have that option in the future, Leung said.

“I really think that, post-Covid-19, working from home is going to be the norm going forward,” she said. “Companies need to think about how to be more flexible and cater to this new norm.”

RIETI’s Morikawa agrees. He predicts that Japanese com­panies will probably allow more teleworking as a result of this experience. He estimates that the optimum percentage of time to devote to work at home is about 30–40 percent, so about two days a week.

“Five days working from home is inefficient. Every worker’s job is composed of lots of tasks, and some of them can be done at home efficiently. But others need to be done at the office,” he said. “So, some combination is best.”

Malcom Foster is a freelance journalist who has been covering stories in Japan for 26 years.
Handling all the additional communication can also eat up time and energy, allowing workers to devote less time to their main responsibilities.