The productivity of working from home: Evidence from Japan

Working from home has become much more prevalent across advanced economies during the Covid-19 pandemic. This column uses survey data from Japan to explore how widely working from home has been adopted across industries and how productive employees are at home. It finds that the overall contribution of working from home to labour input is surprisingly small. Even where firms adopted the practice, many employees did not exploit it; and even those who did work from home did not necessarily do so throughout the week. The firm survey responses suggest that across industries, the average productivity of employees when working from home relative to at the workplace is 68.3%, which is similar to the findings from an employee survey. The results suggest that there is room for improvement to make working from home more feasible…

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… average productivity of employees when working from home relative to at the workplace is 68.3%

Hmm, I wonder. The number rises to %80 for IT.

But… two thoughts. First, we’re still just learning to work remotely.

Second, I think there’s a good case to be made that Japan’s work culture presents a more challenging fit for remote work.

With a nod to Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map, we can make some generalizations that’ll seem clear if you have experience in Japan.

Japanese culture is extremely high-context, all about saying something without saying it. Negative feedback too. Sometimes a Japanese, “Ah ha, that could be a good idea, it’s interesting” might be translated by my Dutch friends as, “That’s the worst idea I’ve heard in my life and I grew up surrounded by morons” or the American, “Uh, let’s look at some other ideas too,” all depending on the tone and circumstance in the context of the interlocutors’ particular relationship.

Yet for example Reed Hastings in his recent book describes how clear guidance and goals are usually required in Japan as people may feel uncomfortable taking initiative and making decisions without approval from leaders and group consensus. Therefore, and it’s my experience also, many Japanese people seek consensus while being at the same time quite hierarchical and all the while not wanting to say what they want to say but greatly preferring to rely on innuendo, inference and reading the room. What’s more, their trust at work is more relationship-based than, say, Americans, who tend to compartmentalize trust into individual tasks. So without a decent relationship to begin with, although someone has a great idea or suggestion to make, it might be very hard to get them to make it, and with high-context communication being hobbled by the low bandwidth of remote comms, it might be lost in transmission.

None of this seems like the fertile soil in which remote work will easily blossom.

On the other hand, it seems that Japanese culture tends to be such that once someone understands a situation and promises to do something, it happens and happens really well, so maybe there is a way for remote work to flower in Japan after all, bringing us back to my first suggestion, which is that as societies we’re just at the very beginning of learning how to work remotely. My guess is that doing it well will require structural changes in how work is organized.

Maybe the Basecamp people are closer to finding a right way to do remote? But if you read David Heinemeier Hansson’s books, it’s like the polar opposite of Japanese culture. Low context, direct negative feedback, no nonsense just-say-it style.


Able to focus more at home?


Culture will inevitably play a role. The Japanese culture is also not at all helped by their expectations of you putting 16h a day in the office so you seem like you are hard at work.

Needless to say, extremely dogmatic bosses who love that ego stroking won’t give it up easily due to the pandemic – or any other reason.

I’d be willing to bet that a lot of Japanese workplaces are already putting people back in offices, even.