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Zooming ahead to catch up with working online

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Zooming ahead to catch up with working online

As COVID-19 rages on, Japan begrudgingly tries out new forms of business communication, with mixed results.

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 03 Jul, 12:00

As 2021 kicks off, countries everywhere continue to look for ways to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two main concerns that governments and businesses both face seem to be protecting the health of people, and protecting the health of businesses.

Although reluctant, some Japanese companies have finally started to look at remote work seriously, either via online meetings or through an online platform. Why did it take so long and what should you expect when working with Japanese businesspeople online? Let's get into it.

Work doesn't stop during pandemics
Work doesn't stop during pandemics

Stay calm and in the office, because it's safe in Japan

Remote work did not really catch on in Japan in 2020 the way it did in other countries for a couple of reasons. First, Japan's recorded COVID numbers never reached the same levels as nations like the USA or China.

Even after the unfortunate events surrounding the docking of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, it was business as usual in Japan, with few additional regulations in place. These conditions made it possible for Japanese companies to carry on as usual, without even having to consider remote work.

Meeting face to face shows sincerity
Meeting face to face shows sincerity

Real business in Japan is all about showing up... in person

A lot of companies and business people don't consider remote work 'genuine'. I spoke with a client last week, who told me that he had been enjoying working from home of late but regrettably had to go to the office on that day because of a crisis with one of his company's contracts.

"Couldn't you meet online?" - I asked

"Everyone has Zoom, or Skype, right?"

He nodded in agreement but then told me that "It wouldn't be appropriate; if it's a serious situation, we have to meet in person. It shows sincerity"

For meetings of importance and meetings with clients, meeting in person is the only way to go in Japan, even, apparently, when there's a global pandemic on the loose.

Trying to explain something online is no easy task!
Trying to explain something online is no easy task!

Trouble-shooting while online

So when you're online in a meeting, what can you expect in Japan? Logistically, it's really not very different from how things are in a real meeting.

Japanese businesspeople generally do not like to interrupt or talk over each other, and in the online environment, that's not really an option, with your microphone cutting out as another speaker starts speaking.

From a technical point of view, I've found it best never to assume that participants are familiar with online terminology. Words and phrases that I'm accustomed to - button, mute yourself, share screen - are not commonly known to business people in Japan as they would be elsewhere.

Of course, those working for international outfits will understand most online jargon, but be aware that there may be something lost in translation for business people working for more local companies.

Don't assume anything and type out as much as possible as you speak if you are communicating in another language; in my experience, Japanese businesspeople read much more fluently than they understand verbally, and having written support will likely be of great help.

These are some best advices I can give you:

  • Spend the first 10-15 minutes of every meeting observing what others do, so you can mimic them and follow along
  • You may need to jump in and support a participant who struggles to connect, but the important thing is to stay in line with what everyone else is doing.
  • Do what you can, without doing too much - the Japanese way of doing business.
The office of yesterday, today and... tomorrow? Who knows!
The office of yesterday, today and... tomorrow? Who knows!

When in Rome, do as Romans do

It may be surprising, but Japanese companies may not welcome doing business online. Personally, I think the ability to work and communicate online - via email, video chat, etc - is incredibly convenient, but that's an incredibly biased view on my part and one that many companies here do not share.

Japanese companies like to do business a certain way, the way that they've always done it. Fax machines are a common sight in many offices even today, and while there are efforts to transition away from personalized stamps, many offices and government bodies still require documents to be stamped (yes, physically) in person.

If you happen to encounter a situation that you feel could be resolved through the use of technology, don't be surprised or frustrated if you are turned down. For a variety of reasons, some Japanese companies refuse to embrace the possibility of using technology to do business.

As someone who works almost exclusively online, I also find it surprising, but it's important to remember that corporate Japan, until not too long ago, was incredibly successful doing business in this very manner, without the fancy technology that many would consider commonplace these days.

Before you rush to judgment or feel the need to shout and explain why Zoom is the way of the future, take a step back and try to figure out a way to resolve things the Japanese way.

The future is coming!
The future is coming!

It's coming - slowly but surely

I certainly don't want to leave you with the impression that remote work and online technology has no place in Japan; that's certainly not the case.

For personal users, Twitter is very popular among Japanese, in no small part due to its anonymity. Corporations that have look fit to implement new policies regarding remote work use the same popular platforms that are being used worldwide, from Zoom to Google Meet to Microsoft Teams.

The takeaway here is to be patient and understanding with a culture that does not see the online world as a place to do business.

While we can discuss whether that makes sense, as COVID numbers continue to rise, keep in mind that transitioning to new technology over the course of a year is an incredible feat for a country that is not known for rapid and extreme change.

As for the future of remote work in Japan, it's anyone's guess where things will go from here, but if the last year was any indication of future trends, it's safe to say that it is here to stay.

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Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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