Above: Asami Fueki, head of international development Sudler Japan, WPP Health Practice
It remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 emergency will have a lasting impact on work culture in Japan. The country has historically had one of the most intense office cultures in the world, often typified by long working hours and challenges around work/life balance. In recent years we’ve worked really hard to address it. However, initiatives like the ‘Telework Day’ – a government campaign encouraging firms to let staff to work from home as part of preparation for the 2020 Olympics (which would have started today, 24th July) – have, I’m sad to say, had limited success. With few companies promoting remote working, the concept – just like the Games themselves – has never got going. Until now.
The pandemic has brought about a complete turnaround in Japanese work culture. The question I ask is: how can we make this become the new normal? It won’t be easy, but we should grab the opportunity to advance our way of thinking.
Historically, people in Japan have always believed that we should go into the office when we are only ‘a bit sick’. With many companies not setting sick leave, people tend to use their paid holiday when they are ill – though few people actually use up all their annual leave. Covid has brought these old ideals into sharp focus, forcing companies to rethink how they approach health and wellness at work. In my own organisation, we’ve been focusing on this with passion and purpose for years. The pandemic has shown why everyone else must now do the same. As Coronavirus has proved, if we want to protect others from getting sick, we shouldn’t be going into the office when we’re feeling unwell. I hope this is something that our country as a whole learns, adopts and maintains as we move beyond Covid.
Personally, I found that remote working liberated me to be even more productive, in the process, giving me a strong feeling that 'I am working'. Previously, since having a child, I’d been forced to finish work earlier than others every day – but now, I can join a meeting or an academic congress online from home. It’s felt like I’ve been released from restrictions of time and place.
However, balancing remote working and the demands of being a mother is not without its challenges. During the state of emergency, my husband and I worked from home with my three-year-old child. I initially found it difficult to switch between both roles. In the end, we decided to allocate ‘focus time’ – my husband from 6.30-9.30am, myself from 9.30-12.30pm every day – where we could each focus on our work responsibilities. By ‘reserving’ the time, efficiency and productivity increased. I also said 'I’m done' to my supervisor and my family, to mark the switch in my role from worker to mother. I found that it was very important – and beneficial – to intentionally take time off.
In a sense, working parents are exploring their new normal all the time. In fact, our ‘normal’ is always dependent on the stage we’re at in our lives – finding work, getting married, having children, etc. Whenever it arrives, the next stage is always new and never normal.
The Covid-19 emergency has certainly introduced us all to an extreme new normal. However, when it comes to work culture, with or without a pandemic, we should always be searching for the healthy working style that suits our stage of life. Coronavirus has taught us to adapt. I hope we can continue to build on that culture, rather than simply lapse back into old habits.
- Asami Fueki, head of international development, Sudler Japan