Opinion on Remote Work
Jun 30, 2017
Remote work and flexible work differ from traditional workplace practices by allowing workers to work away from the office and negotiate work hours with their employers. Studies have shown various benefits of remote work and statistics from Gallup showing 43% of all U.S. workers work remotely at least sometimes and 20% of all U.S. workers work fully remotely. Many countries also have legislations to allow greater flexibility for workers. However, famous tech companies have abandoned their remote work policies in recent years. This article provides opinions on the remote work situation and the potentials of Japan adopting more flexible work in the future.
Benefits of Remote Work
The arguments advocating remote work boil down to the rationale that happy people are more productive and more loyal. Remote work workers are happier because:
- No need to commute to the office and keep up appearances
- More family time and cut expenses on childcare
- More autonomy in time management
For the employers, remote work allows them to cut office expenses due to less space required.
Regulations in foreign countries
Governments around the world have recognized the benefits of remote work/flexible work to workers’ wellbeing and have implemented laws to give workers’ the choice as a civil right.
In France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland, employees have the right to request reduced hours for any reason. In 2014, the U.K. has enacted Flexible Working Regulations 2014 which gives similar rights. Naturally, employers have the right to refuse requests on valid business grounds, and there are eligibility requirements. Australia and a couple of U.S. States allow people such as parents and carers to request a flexible work arrangement.
Most of the government regulations are generally aimed at promoting work-life balance and equality to workers who may be subject to discrimination or prejudice due to their personal circumstances.
Famous Companies Moving from Remote Work
Despite the benefits of remote work, famous companies (IBM in 2017, Reddit in 2014 and Yahoo in 2013) have reversed their remote work policies to increase creativity and team coordination. Some academic studies, including the “water-cooler effect”, concluded that although remote workers are more productive, they are less innovative due to the lack of interaction with other workers.
Steve Jobs was known for his unplanned meetings which supported views that unplanned interactions and encounters stimulates workers and produce better performance.
Famous tech offices such as Google are known for their workers’ incentives and state-of-art office environments to make workers as comfortable as possible. Office spaces designed for optimal interactions to stimulate both creativity and productivity. However, most companies are not able to provide such environments to their office workers.
It seems like a balancing game of “productivity vs creativity” with communication and engagement being a key to the success (or failure) of remote work.
Remote Work in Japan
Remote work in Japan has not been embraced yet with official statistic published by Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications showing only 16.2% of companies allow some form of telecommuting in 2015. Of the 16.2%, almost half of the companies surveyed expressed that less than 5% of the workers take advantage of the scheme.
With the biggest workplace agendas for Japan being curbing overtime and overwork, it seems Japan still has a long way to go in adopting a more liberal and flexible work culture.
Existing regulations are mostly geared towards regulating amount of work hours and how salary for overtime are to be calculated. It is interesting to note that some of the protections are not offered to workers working in a manager capacity.
It appears that Japan may need to learn to walk before it can jump in term of the need to resolve the karoshi and excess overtime issues before it can consider seriously about remote work in general.
Remote Work vs Japanese Work Place Culture
In looking at the situation from the above, it seems that for the remote work to be successful, the workers will need the following:
- Better comfort than the usual office environment
- Adequate equipment and resources
- Clear communication between workers and management
- Self-management and discipline
Remote work is not for everyone and as demonstrated by the famous companies, might not be suitable for certain industries. Each corporation will need to examine the above factors to facilitate a workable remote work system.
Decision making in Japanese workplace involves reaching “consensus” among stakeholders and involve lengthier discussions and planning compare to Western countries. Communication and management styles can also be quite different requiring more sensitivity and “reading the atmosphere” as the Japanese would say. There is also a view that face time and perceived dedication to work are valued more than job performance. Existing foreign commentators have already highlighted the importance of everyday communication. It might be a bigger issue in Japan due to the cultural norms.
The challenges in communication can also exist in how workers communicate requests for remote work. In a society where uniformity is the norm, workers are reluctant to actively change their work styles without encouragement from higher authorities.
If the workplace and workers themselves are incapable of fulfilling the four factors mentioned above, then remote work is unlikely to succeed. The workers are required to work more independently and managers need to become greater communicators in order to benefit from remote work.
Possibilities: Remote Work for the Selected Few
Given the skill shortage in certain industries such as IT and engineering, it is possible that Japanese companies would eventually implement remote work in order to retain talents. Also, some industries where workers largely work independently are more compatible with remote such as graphic design, journalism and consultancy.
Possible steps for companies that have leaders willing to adopt remote work:
- Education to understand the benefits
- Upgrade its communication system and workload/task divisions
- Actively encourage suitable workers to try
- Transparent and consistent request system for workers that are interested
- Good examples from leaders
For the matter to be taken seriously, it is important that leaders recognize the benefits and willing to invest in management changes. Initiatives from the workers who have more bargaining power would also encourage more progress in this area.
The above is a personal opinion of Yasmine Chang at the firm and does not constitute the opinion of the firm.
Comments from Managing Partner Shinji Sumida
Currently, the Japanese population is decreasing and filling work demands through overtime is an unsustainable approach. Looking at other countries such as France, the prevailing approach is to improve the system. Remote work is versatile and flexible and would take time to develop. In order to secure talents, it is worth trialing the system early and prepare internally. Despite the time and consensus required, it is a path worth exploring. Our office is experimenting with remote work also and we plan to share our own experience in the future.