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Can Remote Learning Democratize an Organization?

By

Shihoko Kato, SFMBA ’19

In Japan, where workplace practices have been rooted in generations of tradition, pandemic-driven changes feel tectonic. But some of them are welcome and long overdue, says Shihoko Kato, SFMBA ’19, director of the global business office at Japanese telecom giant NTT in Tokyo. She notes that virtual meeting rooms actually have had an equalizing effect on a workplace culture with long-held gender-specific norms.“In Japanese organizations, working from home has not been a common practice except among women with childcare responsibilities,” Kato says. “Men have been free to work from home as necessary, but culturally, it has long been considered a back-up plan for women who need to tend to a sick child or family member. Thus, the general perception about working from home is that it’s ‘women’s work,’ so to speak.”

Once the public health crisis hit, however, and everyone was working remotely, the stigma that had been ensconced in Japanese workplace culture for generations evaporated. With everyone at home, Kato says that online meetings seemed to equalize the gender balance and soften traditional hierarchies. After all, in an virtual conference room, everyone’s square is the same size. “Sitting around the meeting table, you can see the chain of command—who is sitting where, who gets to speak first,” she continues. “In virtual meetings, the rules are relaxed because no structure has yet grown up around these interactions. There’s a greater sense of equality among the participants.”

Remote working works

A workplace abruptly forced into virtual meetings accomplished something more. “Before the pandemic, you would never have been able to convince the majority of executives in Japan that a remote workforce could be productive,” says Kato. “We proved that we can do this, that we can work remotely if we have to and still be creative and effective, still solve problems. We’ve proven that employees can still be trusted to do their work when a boss is not physically present to hold them accountable.” Kato notes that the pandemic actually brought her closer to colleagues on other continents, because everyone shares a similar cultural challenge. She is responsible for integrating the employees of overseas affiliates into the NTT family. “Our virtual meetings always begin now with our checking in with one another on the state of the crisis in our particular regions,” she says. “We are coping with the same stresses—it’s something that all of us face, regardless of which end of the world we work at.”

An old prejudice extinguished

Kato says that NTT is gradually bringing employees back into the office but with a limit of 50% capacity, which translates to roughly 10 business days a month for any given employee. Those employees who need to work at the office can do so. Otherwise, the staff in Japan is encouraged to work from home whenever possible so that those who need to work at the office will be able to do so safely. She believes that the prejudice against remote working has been conquered, to a great extent, and that it will now be a more common practice. “Some companies will go back to the old system, but many will be open to remote work going forward,” said Kato. “Everybody knows now that it can succeed. It can even increase productivity in some instances and improve quality of life, making for employees who are much less stressed.”

Will this trial period of remote work permanently alter the employee/employer contract in Japan? Kato believes it will. “Employers who offer remote work will now be more competitive in recruiting. Japanese workers tend to sign on to a company for much of their careers—they don’t hop around. Knowing that a company offers the flexibility of remote work will be an attractive incentive.”