Media  Global Economy  2022.01.26

Telework, disliked by Japanese workers

Le Monde on November 5th, 2021

This article was initially published in French in Le Monde newspaper on 5. November 2021, as part of a series of monthly columns on Asian economies. The original article can be found here:

Sébastien Lechevalier reports, in his column, on a study showing that the use of telework in Japan has paradoxically led to a sharp drop in productivity.

Japan is no exception to the rise in teleworking observed since the start of the pandemic. By spring 2020, up to 25% of Japanese employees were teleworking, compared to 6% before the crisis. However, at the same time, their productivity has dropped by about 20% on average. These are the two main findings of a study by economist Toshihiro Okubo and his colleagues ("Teleworker Performance in the COVID-19 Era in Japan", Asian Economic Papers No. 20/2, 2020).

These results are doubly surprising. Firstly, telework was very low in Japan before the pandemic (especially compared to Europe, where it concerned about 20% of employees). The government had been promoting telework since 2016, without any results; what it failed to do in four years, the pandemic achieved in a few weeks!

Secondly, one would have thought that telework would increase productivity uniformly, especially through the reduction of commuting time between home and work, which in Japan is 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 between Japanese workers.

Telework not suitable for companies

Why was telework such a low priority option in Japan? On the one hand, the policy of mobilizing employees implies, in the managerial conception of companies, long working hours in the office or on the shop floor (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 at increasing labor productivity through by reducing working hours and using telework, failed.

The seemingly paradoxical decrease in productivity associated with the increased use of telework confirms in hindsight that telework is not necessarily suited to the dominant organizational pattern of Japanese companies. It therefore requires organizational changes to be implemented efficiently.

Size of home and household is a determining factor

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

These differences can be explained less by the individual characteristics of the workers (level of education or computer literacy) than by their environment, both at home and in the company. The size of the home and the composition of the household appear to be determining factors; similarly, companies that had already introduced "atypical" forms of work organization, such as telework, before the pandemic are those that have benefited most, in terms of efficiency, from its extension or even its generalization.

Only a break with the dominant Japanese productivity model would allow telework to flourish in Japan. The mere cyclical effect of the pandemic does not bring benefits in terms of labor productivity, but rather results in a further increase in inequalities between employees and between companies.

Column By Sébastien Lechevalier, Professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), Senior Researcher at Maison franco-japonaise (UMIFRE 19, Tokyo) and at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS, Tokyo).