COVID-19 had spread worldwide by February 2020 and was declared a pandemic in March 2020. In Japan, the number of infections and deaths is much lower than in the US and Europe. Japan has also not completely closed its national borders or locked down its cities, and economic activity has continued.
The government’s policy response has been to request people to refrain from leaving their homes and to encourage telework without any penalties and punishment. This has drawn attention to telework as an effective means to continue work while preventing the spread of infection.
However, Japan has the lowest use of telework among developed countries.1 Despite strong promotion by government and companies in recent years, the utilisation rate of telework has remained low. Thus, Japan presents an interesting case to investigate how the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic promotes telework (Okubo 2020a,b).
Overview of Keio-NIRA survey results
In April 2020, Keio University (Okubo laboratory) and Nippon Institute for Research Advancement conducted a survey on telework, “Questionnaire Survey on the effects of the Spread of the COVID-19 on Telework-based Work Styles, Lifestyle, and Awareness”. The sample is 10,516 workers living in Japan. The questionnaire asks about the employment status, living situation, and awareness of workers as of January and March 2020.2
In general, telework refers to a way of working that is not bound by time and space, using information and communications technology (ICT). In our survey, telework is defined as working at a specific place (at home or in public facilities) for hours using ICT. We therefore do not include the use of ICT devices at locations such as train stations, airports, transportation facilities, and the premises of business partners.
We find that the national average telework utilisation rate as of March 2020 was 10%, while it was 6% in January. The utilisation rate increased by about 4 percentage points only in two months. Further findings are as follows:
1. The most teleworkers are in the information services and the fewest in face-to-face service work and manual labour
By industry, communications and information services (27%) and information services and research (23%) have the highest telework utilisation rates, while restaurants and accommodation (4%) and medical care and welfare (2%) have the lowest rates (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Rate of utilisation of telework by industry category
By occupation, management consultants (51%), researchers (28%), and data processing and communication engineers (25%) see high use of telework, while doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists (3%), public health nurses, midwives, and nurses (2%), carrying, cleaning, packaging, and related workers (2%), manufacturing process workers (2%), food and drink/cooking and customer service workers (2%), and construction and mining workers (0%) see low rates (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Utilisation rate by occupational category
Thus, industries and occupations related to information have a relatively high rate in the utilisation of telework, while telework is not suited to face-to-face services and manual labour.
In terms of growth from January to March 2020, the rate of telework almost doubled in accounting, clerical work, and sales and retail, showing telework rapidly spread across the entire spectrum of office work. This finding is consistent with evidence from Baker (2020) and Dingel and Neiman (2020).
2. There are more teleworkers in urban areas and fewer in rural areas
The rate of utilising telework differs by region. Figure 3 shows the telework utilisation rate by prefecture. Tokyo has the highest rate at 21%. Teleworking between January and March 2020 largely grew in Tokyo; this is because the Tokyo metropolitan area has a high concentration of white-collar workers in headquarter offices and service industries, all of which are well suited to telework.
Figure 3 Telework utilisation rate by prefecture (residential base)
The pandemic shock hits industries unsuitable to telework
While teleworking varies across industries and occupations, the pandemic shock hit specific industries, where worker incomes substantially declined. In particular, occupations less suited to telework and with fewer teleworkers tended to experience a more negative effect from the COVID-19 pandemic shock.
Figure 4 shows the changes in income between January and March by occupational category. Half of the workers in the food, drink, and accommodation industries saw a large decline in income. By contrast, workers in information and communications, research, and public services did not see large declines in income. The occupations that experienced the most significantly negative impact are those with the lowest rates of telework (Figure 1).
Figure 4 Changes in income, by industry
The main means to prevent infection in the current pandemic is to avoid person-to-person contact, and telework has therefore been recommended. While government requests for businesses to suspend their activities have been focused on face-to-face services, in which person-to-person contact is fundamental, tasks in these industries are the least suited to telework. These industries had already suffered significant negative economic impacts, and calling on them to promote telework would only exacerbate the recession by increasing unemployment and business closures.
While economic activities need to be uniformly stopped as a countermeasure against infectious diseases, it is extremely difficult to promote telework in all industries and occupations. It is a typical contradiction between measures against infectious diseases and economic policy. More generous economic assistance will be an urgent requirement to prevent bankruptcies and unemployment in industries and occupations unsuitable to telework.
Baker, M G (2020), “Characterizing occupations that cannot work from home: A means to identify susceptible worker groups during the COVID-19 pandemic”, preprint, medRxiv.
Dingel, J, and B Neiman (2020), “How many jobs can be done at home?”, VoxEU.org, 6 April.
Okubo, T, and Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (2020a) “Report on the results of a questionnaire survey concerning the impact of the use of telework to respond to the spread of the COVID-19 on working styles, lifestyles, and awareness”, Nippon Institute for Research Advancement.
Okubo, T, and Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (2020b), “Results of a questionnaire survey concerning the impact of the use of telework to respond to the spread of the COVID-19 on working styles, lifestyles, and awareness (preliminary report)”, Nippon Institute for Research Advancement.
Okubo, T (2020a), “Telework cannot be limited to a response to the spread of disease: Difficulties and contradictions as revealed by a survey of actual working conditions”, NIRA Opinion Paper 47, Tokyo.
Okubo, T (2020b), “Spread of COVID-19 and telework: Evidence from Japan”, Keio-IES Discussion Paper Series, forthcoming.
1 According to the 2014 Communications Usage Trend Survey (Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Japan), 85% of firms and establishments in the US have introduced telework, 38% in the UK, 22% in Germany, and only 11% in Japan. The 2016 study “Government Initiatives towards the Promotion of Telework” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (in Japanese) can be accessed here.
2 The questionnaire survey and data analysis were conducted by Toshihiro Okubo, Kiwamu Kato, Senior Architect for Future Corporation, and Atsushi Inoue, Kozue Sekijima, and Hironari Masuhara of NIRA. This is web-based survey by Nikkei Research, Co. See also Okubo and Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (2020a, b).