worker flexibility needed in Japan for globalization

If Japan really wants to be global, its workers need more flexibility

Many creative ideas were proposed in Japan to deal with the power shortages this summer, such as making Friday a holiday and working on Saturday instead. The more articles I read describing these ideas, the more I hoped that flexible working will finally take off in Japan.

It’s been long overdue and much discussed as one way of encouraging women to rejoin the workforce. But I have always thought that unless a critical mass of Japanese companies decide to adopt it – in the face of some overriding social need – rather than a token gesture towards diversity in the workplace aimed at women only – it will never happen in a widespread way.

Being able to work from home has an obvious advantage in a power crisis – it creates less of a burden on the energy hungry national transport system. It also enables more resilience should, heaven forbid, another earthquake strike Japan, as workers will be more dispersed rather than concentrated in one vulnerable office building.

The long term benefits to society, other than the obvious one of allowing more women to return to work, would be that presenteeism – staying long hours in the office to prove loyalty to the team and the company – might finally stop being the norm. It’s hard for Japanese companies to accept that presenteeism has come to a natural end, because one of the fundamental attitudes behind overtime is group orientation. You have never finished your work for the day, because you could always be helping someone else in your team.

One of the major changes in the British workplace over the past decade or so has been the increase in what I call “grey zone” working – thanks to smartphones, we can check our work e-mails during the morning and evening commute.

Lightweight laptops and the ability to log on remotely to corporate servers mean we can easily take our work home with us. This worries Japanese companies, who see all the security risks that entails. But now they also realise that there are security risks in having data concentrated in hardware in one location.

One of the other reasons the UK has taken to flexible working is the fact that we are in an ideal location in terms of time zones. We can pick up from Asia in the morning, and “baton touch” as the Japanese say, to our colleagues in North America in the afternoon. Early morning and late evening phone calls are much more bearable if we can do them from home.

Of course we also realise we have to keep a balance in terms of social interaction and knowledge sharing with our colleagues. A whole week at home would not help us do our jobs properly either. I hope Japan can bridge the gap at the other end of the world’s day, from North America on to Europe via Asia, but it will take flexible working hours to make that a reality.

This article originally appeared in the June 13th 2011 edition of the Nikkei Weekly