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It’s a perfect time for a ‘workation,’ but is Japan ready?

  • Japan News-Yomiuri
                                A man works inside a gondola of the Ferris wheel at Yomiuriland amusement park, which is offering its attractions as places to telework. Teleworkers can spend an hour, or five rotations, in the Ferris wheel. A roofed poolside area is available weekdays for about $18 and on week-ends for $19. Portable power supplies and Wi-Fi routers are available for rent. Amusement Workation was launched in mid-October at the park, located between western Tokyo and Kawasaki.

    Japan News-Yomiuri

    A man works inside a gondola of the Ferris wheel at Yomiuriland amusement park, which is offering its attractions as places to telework. Teleworkers can spend an hour, or five rotations, in the Ferris wheel. A roofed poolside area is available weekdays for about $18 and on week-ends for $19. Portable power supplies and Wi-Fi routers are available for rent. Amusement Workation was launched in mid-October at the park, located between western Tokyo and Kawasaki.

TOKYO >> The advent of remote work in Japan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided the government with ammunition to push an even more radical work style, previously thought all but incompatible with Japan Inc.: the workation.

A workation is a hybrid working vacation in which employees telework from resorts and other destinations that allow them to escape everyday life.

The concept made headlines in June when then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga mentioned workations during a strategy meeting as a possible way to reinvigorate the virus-hit tourism sector.

The idea of the workation is mostly alien in Japan, but it has been adopted by a smattering of companies and municipalities, such as Japan Airlines and Wakayama Prefecture.

The Japan Tourism Agency said it had been looking into workations even before the pandemic. Proponents, however, say a workation has less to do with promoting tourism and more to do with fostering a flexible work style.

They also admit that peer pressure to work from an office and lingering skepticism toward basic telework means it will take time before workations can take hold in Japan. Critics of Suga’s suggestion stoked concerns that it could encourage overwork.

But the workation is among the concepts the tourism agency has promoted in recent years as a way to stagger demand for travel, says agency official Hokuto Asano.

“Many people in Japan tend to go on trips at specific periods, … such as during the summer or year-end vacation holidays. This concentration of demand has led to soaring ticket prices, and has simply prevented many people from booking flights,” Asano says.

For better or worse, the agency’s push has gained momentum thanks to the virus, which has opened the door to working remotely and has allowed workers a taste of being away from office, Asano says.

One of the pioneers of the work style is Japan Airlines, which began a workation program in 2017 with 34 participants. The carrier said it allows employees to go on personal trips even if they have work meetings scheduled.

Still, workations may only be feasible for a handful of professionals, such as freelancers and corporate executives who have some freedom in the way they work.

Workations mean employees work unsupervised in a far more unstructured situation than telework, which in Japan is predicated on the understanding that workers are desk-bound at home from 9 to 5. Workations also give rise to thorny issues such as how much of workers’ travel costs are shouldered by companies and how workers compensation insurance applies.

Hideki Ojima, a 51-year-old marketing consultant who has long engaged in workations, says the work style is not a one-size-fits-all. Its nomadic nature means it is less suitable for work that requires uninterrupted hours of concentration or robust internet connectivity.

Ojima also believes typical Japanese firms look down on the concept.

“In Japan, it is often expected that you … participate in face-to-face meetings. Things have been slightly changing because of the pandemic, but with telework largely considered to be something you are allowed to do only from home, I think the notion of the workation … is still controversial,” he says.

Since employees in other countries tend to be evaluated based on performance, slacking off during a workation is less likely than it is in Japan, where companies often find it difficult to terminate workers. In fact, some employers might think workations encourage a bad work ethic, Ojima says.

But if conditions are satisfactory for all involved, the experience can be rewarding, he says.

“When I’m on workation, I get to escape from the mundane and meet people I wouldn’t normally have a chance to interact with, which inspires me, fires up my motivation and ultimately, I hope, boosts my productivity.”

Remote islands eyed as workation hubs

Japan’s government plans to promote workations on remote islands on its borders, part of an agenda to preserve the nation’s territory while assisting local tourism.

The Cabinet Office will discount travel costs and provide funds to hotels and inns to create work spaces for guests and set up satellite offices for companies. The plan includes introducing charter flights.

The office seeks $58.7 million for the program, which involves 71 islands across eight prefectures. It aims to boost local tourism, the main industry on these islands, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.

— Japan News-Yomiuri

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