Tokyo: The longstanding stereotype of Japan’s office-bound “salaryman” is being tested as companies cautiously embrace working from home in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Japan’s government has for years been trying to encourage firms to implement “flexible working patterns”, hoping that less demanding office hours will help women return to work after having children and men share more housework and childcare.
But uptake has been slow. A survey published last year found around 19 percent of companies offered the option to work from home, but just 8.5 percent of employees polled had tried it out.
Haruka Kazama, an economist at the Mizuho research institute, says part of the challenge is the social stigma attached to deviating from the salaryman stereotype.
That’s a view familiar to Yuki Sato, 35, currently experimenting with teleworking for the first time. “The image of going to the office is very strong. You have to show that you work hard and long hours and that you help your colleagues,” Sato told AFP.
“With telework, we can’t show our goodwill and motivation,” he added.
‘It’s actually nice’
But the spread of the new coronavirus has forced employers and workers to give telework a try in Japan, and Sato for one has been pleasantly surprised.
“Unlike I’d expected, it’s actually nice. Much easier than going to the office,” said Sato, who has been working at home since February when the government began asking workers to telework to avoid spreading the new coronavirus.
He works for a Tokyo start-up, Phybbit, which offers services to counter digital fraud, and had never before tried working from home.
“This experience has completely changed my image of teleworking,” he said. For a start, it saves him two hours of commuting a day, meaning he has more time with his two daughters, whose schools are currently closed.
“I can also give them their bath in the evening, something I could never do during the week before because I was never home before 8pm.”
Sato’s wife Hitomi takes primary care of their daughters, six-year-old Yurina and four-year-old Hidano and said she has welcomed the helping hand at home.
“I’m glad that he’s here, and the girls are happy to spend time with their dad,” she said.
‘Mindsets are changing’
A poll carried out at the end of February by the Keidanren business association of nearly 400 major firms found nearly 70 percent had already begun implementing teleworking or were planning to because of the pandemic.
Workers still cram onto commuter trains—albeit in smaller numbers—and Japan’s parliament is hardly setting the tone, continuing to hold sessions and ministerial press conferences.
But experts said being forced to try teleworking was likely to leave a lasting impact in Japan, with companies beginning to see working from home as a feasible and even attractive option.
“I think mindsets are changing,” said Kazama.