Cultural Intelligence for the Remote World: Virtual Working in Japan

Published on January 21st, 2021

Remote working, or telework, has not come as naturally to Japan as it has elsewhere, for various reasons. A collectivist society, steeped in ritual, with strict hierarchies and a daily life geared to lively after-work socializing is not the best fit for the isolation of working from home. Japanese workers have in many ways struggled to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Here are some of the issues to bear in mind.

Here are some points to consider when working remotely with colleagues in Japan:

Be aware of practicalities

Not all Japanese companies are equipped technologically to manage a large, remote workforce and not all homes have adequate broadband for running remote meeting software. Many Japanese may feel they can’t give their best when they are working remotely in small spaces with children or elderly relatives at home.

For all its high-tech image, Japan is deeply traditional in some respects

The hanko, the individual seal of a person or a company, is still used to mark official documents. While digital hankos exist, they are seen only as a temporary substitute for the real thing. Japan is also heavily reliant on fax machines, with the highest number of machines per capita in the world – a hindrance to those who do not have a machine at home.

A further obstacle is that some large Japanese companies

can be resistant to cloud-based software, on which remote working depends, and may not use systems like Slack, Zoom and Google + embraced by western businesses. Instead, intranets, many of which are outdated, are favoured in order to protect data. Other companies are using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for secure communication.

When managing a team, try to understand the workplace culture

Some older workers and senior managers struggle with the change in routine when switching to teleworking, seeing ‘work’ as something that happens when people are physically present in the office, regardless as how efficient those people are.

Keep team members connected and engaged

Japan is a naturally collectivist culture, with loyalty to the company built through shared experience between managers and employees. Working remotely, trust can be lost. Team leaders need to be encouraged to delegate work.

Be early for online meetings and dress smartly

Not overly formal, but in a way that will not distract the participants. Creating an overall impression of calm, professional order is important. Virtual backgrounds are very popular among Japanese remote workers; Japanese homes tend to be small, and to be seen working at your kitchen table is akin to loss of face. Do not stare directly at the camera for extended periods; too much eye contact is seen as intimidating and disrespectful.

Manage online meetings with consideration

Japan is a high-context culture in which the overall situation, tone, body language and the use of silence are part of communication. Much of this nuance can be lost in a virtual meeting, especially if native English speakers talk in their normal way – making asides, chatting and failing to finish sentences. This can leave Japanese participants feeling alienated and frustrated. Clear speech, visual aids in Japanese and regular but polite confirmation that a point has been understood are important.

Maintaining a sense of connection with your team is essential

Team members will often need reassuring that they are not missing the chance of a bonus or promotion if they are working remotely – very real fears for many Japanese. As this is not a culture where speaking out is encouraged, junior workers need to be mentored if they are working remotely, or their voices may never be heard.

Be creative

with virtual nomikai, or drinking gatherings, seen as essential bonding activities among Japanese workers. Online virtual drinking party site Tacnom has seen a big surge in users recently, while some companies even provide a budget for teleworkers to enjoy virtual drinks gatherings.

Trying to discover more about your Japanese contacts in a virtual world may not be easy

they are unlikely to have an extensive LinkedIn profile, for example. Establishing a presence on the business networking site can be interpreted as looking for a job and many Japanese aim to stay with the same company for life. Japanese people are also more private; it is seen as bad form to ‘boast’ about achievements on a social network. So devote time before and after meetings to build trust and maintain harmony. You may be in a virtual setting but that personal connection is just as important.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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