Considering Telecommuting and Distributed Work
- Shizuka Takamura
- Associate Professor, Chuo Graduate School of Strategic Management
Area of Specialization: Business Administration（Human Resource Management)
Spread of telecommuting during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unexpected and rapid increase in telecommuting.
The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare defines telecommuting as a flexible workstyle which utilizes information communication technology (ICT) in order to make effective use of time and places. This includes ① working from home; that is, your home is your base of work, ② mobile work, which is working while traveling in public transportation or at customer sites, cafes, hotels, airport lounges, etc., and ③ satellite office work, which means working at an office that is remote from your home office. This workstyle makes it possible to fulfill your function (role) even without going to your normal location (workplace). Telecommuting has added an element of diversity in workplaces in terms of work location in addition to the diversity of human resources which is accelerating in recent years.
Theme requiring consideration in the advancement of telecommuting: Workstyle reform and group creativity
Telecommuting was advancing even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The main theme requiring consideration in telecommuting is workstyle reform. Previously, telecommuting was not possible in an industrial society which conducted mass production and required the provision of labor during specific times and in specific locations, so a considerable number of people sometimes found it difficult to seek for employment opportunities. However, upon entering a post-industrial society, the need to work in a predetermined time period or location decreased. At the same time, there was a labor shortage in society as a whole. Therefore, in order to receive labor from groups for which it was previously impossible to provide employment opportunities, telecommuting was implemented in an attempt to relax restrictions on working time and location. This was also a positive measure from the perspective of individuals, because people who (temporarily) had difficulty in working under conventional labor conditions due to childcare, family care, etc., are now able to fulfill their desire to continue working or find new employment.
On the other hand, a theme requiring consideration that has been attracting attention since before and after the COVID-19 pandemic is group creativity. This perspective promotes the smooth movement and interaction of knowledge workers possessing different perspectives and knowledge, and heightens the creativity of groups (teams) by fostering creative interactions. It is well known that new value creation prefers combinations of different perspectives and knowledge to homogeneous ones.
Movement toward incorporating telecommuting when redesigning the workplace
Efforts focusing on group creativity are in line with the movement for office (workplace) reform. The office originated as a work space for an industrial society that pursued cost reduction and efficiency of progress control by managers through the elimination of empty space to the greatest possible extent. Over time, a layout (island-shaped) was developed as a functional space that emphasized ease of work and the efficiency of collaborative work by teams. It also sought to increase employee satisfaction by pursuing comfort as a living space. In recent years, the office is being redefined as a place where diverse human resources gather, exchange diverse information, and generate new knowledge through group work. There has also been the appearance of office design using the concept of hotdesking (an office which does not have assigned workspaces and is shared by many people), which seeks to achieve interactions with diverse people through spatial design, as well as ABW (Activity Based Working), which seeks to allocate office usage depending on the type of work to be done on that day. There is also a movement to incorporate ICT-based telecommuting into some of the workplaces provided through the ABW concept.
Distributed work for group creativity
Now, can the creativity of a group be enhanced simply by providing multiple types of offices and allowing individuals to choose where they work, as in ABW? Previous studies indicate a pessimistic answer to this question. Unless some sort of special measures are taken, respecting individual autonomy and implementing distributed work do not foster group interaction; instead, it may actually reduce interaction and continued involvement among team members. In order to respect the autonomy of individuals and the diversity of human resources, it is necessary to differentiate--that is, to separate parts from the whole. However, promoting differentiation will result in the loss of organizational capability due to sacrificing integration, which can also be defined as overall harmony. This creates the dilemma of differentiation and integration (Ota, 2020).
We should pay attention to the followings when considering the two themes of telecommuting (workstyle reform and group creativity) that were introduced in the previous section. In the case of workstyle reform, we must consider that telecommuting is the selection of workstyle by an individual, and that it is an exceptional workstyle depending on the workplace. In the case of group creativity, telecommuting is positively recognized as one type of mainstream workstyles. When assuming distribution, from the viewpoint of productivity of the entire organization, it is necessary to develop a strategic working environment and management while considering factors such as communication, teamwork, and motivation. The implementation of such concepts in work is beginning to gain awareness under the name of distributed work, which is a term used to differentiate from simple telecommuting.
Implementing distributed work
Moving forward, telecommuting is likely to take root and spread, especially among knowledge workers. In this environment, I am interested in distributed work that manages diversity. Consequently, I am investigating the implementation of workplaces that seek a balance between distribution and integration by combining office design and personnel measures.
So far, I have gathered cases in which spatial design has been used to affect the workplace culture and intentionally encourage interaction among departments by creating lines of movement for people; cases where organizations were stimulated by involving many members in the spatial design process in order to share a vision with management and incorporate bottom-up proposals; cases of introducing a combination of ICT and wearable sensors for visualizing the behavior of team members to a certain extent; and various measures for taking the opposite approach and setting places for members to interact face-to-face. In addition, instead of simply pursuing the direct effects of increased work efficiency, I have gathered cases on the form in which managers interact with members in order to realize indirect effects such as building human relationships, raising awareness, heightening skills, developing leadership ability and creating a sense of reward, accomplishment, satisfaction, etc., in environments where daily real interactions are limited. Furthermore, I have collected cases from other various perspectives such as verbal and non-verbal communication methods depending on leadership style. I have already presented on some of these cases at academic conferences, and I am preparing to conduct more presentations in the future.
Research themes and new tools related to distributed work
It is hoped that research on personnel measures as a shared infrastructure of organizations and on the behavior of managers as a practice in the workplace will be accumulated in the future in order to effectively operate distributed work. New tools that contribute to such research are also emerging. For example, behavior history data from wearable sensors will provide new evidence for research. The results of data which are provided by companies and are analyzed by my research group show that there are also unique major characteristics for the place and time occupied when hotdesking, even when examining multiple managers belonging to the same department and working in the same work. It is also becoming clear that those characteristics are related to leadership style.
The use of telecommuting and the activities of teams that work in a distributed manner may become even more widespread as a workstyle in the "With COVID-19" era. We must accumulate further knowledge regarding the ideal form of distributed work as a new measure to extract productivity from these changes.
For example, refer to Figure 2-3-4-1 "Experience of Telework" in the Information and Communications White Paper 2021, published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (https://www.soumu.go.jp/johotsusintokei/whitepaper/ja/r03/html/nd123410.html), etc. Viewed on April 1, 2022.
 Refer to the Telework Comprehensive Portal Site operated by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (https://telework.mhlw.go.jp/). Viewed on April 1, 2022.
 Hajime Ota (2020), Form of Collaboration at Japanese Corporations: Focusing on the Relationship Between Teams and Individuals, the Japanese Journal of Labour Studies, No. 720, pp. 50-58.
Associate Professor, Chuo Graduate School of Strategic Management
Area of Specialization: Business Administration（Human Resource Management)
Shizuka Takamura was born in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1966. She graduated from the School of Arts and Sciences, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University in 1989. She completed the Master’s Program from the degree programs in Business Sciences, the University of Tsukuba in 2008. She completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, the University of Tokyo in 2019. She holds a PhD in interdisciplinary informatics from the University of Tokyo.
Her previous positions include an employee at a private company, a gender equality analyst at the Cabinet Office, and a Specially Appointed Professor at Seijo University. She has held her current position since 2019. Her current research themes include diversity management, human resources development, work-life management, etc.
Her major written works include Series Diversity Management: The Role of Managers (co-authored, 2020, Chuokeizai-Sha) and more.
She appeared on the educational TV program “Corridor of Knowledge” in the 142nd episode “Acceleration of Telecommuting During COVID-19: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Future Prospects” (https://www.chuo-u.ac.jp/usr/kairou/news/2021/12/57471/).