Teleworking, unloved by Japanese workers

Chronic. Japan is no exception to the rise in the use of telecommuting observed since the start of the pandemic. In spring 2020, teleworking affected up to 25% of Japanese employees against 6% before the crisis. However, at the same time, their productivity fell by around 20% on average. These are the two main results of a study carried out by economist Toshihiro Okubo and his colleagues (« Teleworker Performance in the COVID-19 Era in Japan », Asian Economic Papers n°20/2, 2020).

These results are doubly surprising. First of all, teleworking was not very widespread in Japan before the pandemic (in particular by comparison with Europe, where it concerned around 20% of employees). Since 2016, the government had initiated a policy of promoting teleworking, without obtaining any results; what he failed to do in four years, the pandemic achieved in a few weeks!

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Then, one would have thought that teleworking would increase productivity in a uniform way, in particular thanks to the reduction of transport times between home and work, which in Japan are among the highest in the world! However, this is not the case: the mechanisms at work are more complex and prove to be a source of inequalities among Japanese workers.

Teleworking not suitable for companies

Why was telecommuting such a popular option in Japan? On the one hand, the employee mobilization policy implies, in the managerial conception of companies, long working hours in the office or in the workshop (even if they have been decreasing since the 1990s).

On the other hand, productivity relies mainly on teamwork and informal exchanges, which make remote work less relevant. This is why the reform initiated in 2016 by the Abe government, which mainly aimed to increase labor productivity by reducing working hours and recourse to teleworking, failed.

The seemingly paradoxical decline in productivity associated with the increased use of telework comes from posteriori confirm that teleworking is not necessarily adapted to the dominant mode of organization of Japanese companies. Implementing it efficiently therefore involves organizational changes.

The decisive size of the home and household

Japanese researchers analyzed the evolution of productivity on the basis of an indicator called “Productive efficiency”, which is measured subjectively by the workers themselves. This thus provides an indication of worker satisfaction, which has also fallen sharply on average. Behind this average decline in perceived productivity is in fact a great disparity: almost 30% of workers say they have maintained their efficiency or even increased it slightly, while more than 50% have observed a decline in this efficiency.

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Teleworking, unloved by Japanese workers