November 27, 2020
In less than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how consumers think and act, with far-reaching impacts on all aspects of society. To identify the new communications challenges that companies and organizations need to address, Dentsu Public Relations has teamed up with various opinion leaders for a new series of trend reports exploring the implications of the new normal on a variety of societal themes.
“The companies that were quickest to respond to the COVID-19 crisis were those that were already engaged in consistent, rigorous efforts to change the way they work. The present situation has once again highlighted the digital transformation and diversity initiatives companies have been running, earning them renewed recognition from both internal and external stakeholders.”
For this report, which looks at fresh challenges and future developments in the world of work, we turned to Yoshie Komuro. As president of work style consultancy Work-Life Balance, she has helped over 1,000 client businesses successfully transform their working cultures, and we sat down to discuss the ongoing transformation in working styles across Japan, further challenges companies need to address, and the implications for the future of communications.
Yoshie Komuro – Three key work culture challenges for 2021
1.) Moving past nostalgic office work ideals to leverage the full potential of telecommuting
Many managers tell me that they’re seeing their productivity fall as instructions that could be given over a 30-second face-to-face briefing now take much longer to put together online. But I imagine that many of these quick verbal requests were actually inadequate, difficult to follow, and would have ended up causing problems down the line. It’s wishful thinking to say that the best thing about working at the office is the ability to string together instructions on the spot based on a vague mental image. To me, this signifies a lack of explanation skills—if a manager is facing difficulties giving appropriate instructions online, it’s likely that the same problems would be occurring offline, too.
Almost all aspects of business can be carried out online if companies change the way they work—for example, by reducing the number of documents that need hanko seals for authorization. Rather than complaining about the constraints of working online, we need to instead turn our attention toward its benefits, such as the ease of communicating with partners in remote locations; and the disadvantages of in-person meetings, such as the time demands of traveling.
Visual communication skills needed to flourish in the online sphere
It’s common for employees who used to stay late at the office and looked like they were working hard to underperform when working remotely, and perhaps that’s a sign that presenting an air of hard work doesn’t actually generate results. When working from home, clear instructions and communication are vital, so logically-minded staff who can use graphs to present information visually are held in higher regard.
Closing the gender gap: unlocking the full potential of the whole workforce
By removing the need to go to the office, telecommuting opens the door to full-time work for employees who previously had to work shorter hours in order to look after children or care for elderly relatives. This could boost workforce productivity by the equivalent of three months a year.
Reduced-hour workers, who had been seen as lower down the hierarchy in the past, are now able to be fully productive. These employees tend to be highly motivated to finish their work on time, adept at autonomously managing their schedules, and extremely thorough when it comes to planning and reporting. Managers are now starting to view these team members as some of their most dependable assets.
The changing face of physical offices
Growth in telecommuting seems likely to transform the role of the office. Rather than a venue for day-to-day work, offices will be used for more specialized purposes—such as events to boost staff morale—or as a platform for brand communications. Some companies that have already changed their approach to physical offices have set up brand spaces, while others use their office space to demonstrate innovative aspects of their working culture to visitors. Some businesses are even downsizing their offices by half.
2.) From cyberbullying to irregular routines: Manners and methods for adapting to the new working normal
There are, of course, some downsides to online work. One topic that has been making headlines recently is rimohara, short for “remote-work harassment.” In this new form of workforce cyberbullying, staff may be mocked for their home environments after being forced to engage their cameras during video conferences. Moving forward, we will need new communication rules and manners to deal with online-specific challenges like this.
Etiquette of online meetings
In video conferences, when other participants are on mute, speakers can become anxious due to the absence of verbal feedback they would normally use to gauge reaction in a face-to-face meeting.
To alleviate this uncertainty, I suggest that companies select a small number of participants to act as “designated reactors” during presentations and so on. These participants can engage their mics and put the speaker’s mind at ease by making remarks such as “that’s interesting” or “I see.” I think this is just one of a range of new approaches that will emerge to improve online meetings.
New approaches to employee health
Another concern with remote work is employee health. Telecommuting has led to longer working hours as well as more work being carried out at night. But companies have no control over the sleeping schedules of their staff—all they can do is manage the interval between finishing work one day and starting the next. EU labor standards stipulate that there must be a gap of at least 11 hours between clocking off in the evening and clocking on the next day. A key challenge moving forward is establishing such intervals specifically with remote work in mind.
3.) Psychological safety & a break from outdated management norms
Ultimately, some companies are simply unable to move their operations online, while others that do make the shift may find the path fraught with difficulties. Overcoming such challenges takes more than surface-level solutions like IT systems and tools. As I mentioned earlier, the companies that were the quickest to react to COVID-19 were those that had already been working on efforts to transform their working cultures. A key point here is “psychological safety”—making work a safe space in which staff can speak their mind without fear of reprimand or humiliation.
Remote work favors teamwork over individual specialists
Some employees really make their role their own. They are praised for being the only person who can do a certain task, and they compete on that basis. Fearing that their worth might fall if they share information with others, they keep their insights and expertise firmly shut away in their desk drawers or computer as though they were guarding a secret recipe. For remote work in particular, this phenomenon can make it difficult to create a pool of shared knowledge, causing productivity to fall, and even impacting a company’s competitiveness.
Clear workflows, transparent evaluations, and psychological safety
At companies where job-related knowledge is openly and proactively shared, it is easy to tell others where they can find a certain piece of information. This makes it easier for new recruits to learn the ropes, even online, and any questions can also be asked and answered via digital platforms. Businesses that are able to achieve such clear standards for work-related communications are generally those that consistently ensure organizational transparency, have fair standards for evaluations, and reinforce psychological safety in their communications.
And while diversity, psychological safety, and one-to-one coaching are by no means new management trends, I believe the shift to working from home will serve to further accelerate progress in this area.
Moving past outdated management practices
Moving forward, we’re going to be seeing more and more employees balance work with caring for children and elderly relatives, which may make it difficult for a single team member to be able to see a task right through to the end by themselves. And of course there’s no way to guarantee perfect health and freedom from colds all year round.
We are moving into an age where diverse teams share tasks and help one another to deliver results. To facilitate this shift, companies will need to adapt their performance evaluation systems to commend employees that share information and proactively help out others in times of need. It will be vital to overhaul conventional working cultures and communication approaches. And it is clear that perfunctory IT tools and systems alone are not enough to prevent an over-reliance on the unique skillsets of individual staff members.
Comments from the Dentsu PR Trend Report Editorial Team
Employee satisfaction equals customer satisfaction
One of the key takeaways from this interview was the idea that reforming working culture requires not only new technologies, but also a shift in employees’ mindset. It is also clear that in order to facilitate this transformation, systemic, organizational, and communication-related infrastructure is vital.
Modernizing internal communications
In future, organizations with flat hierarchies and agreeable communication between staff will not only provide better service, but also lift their corporate brand both internally and externally, boosting attractiveness as an employer.
Internal communications teams have traditionally been focused on bettering companywide relations in organizations divided by departmental factionalism. These teams will now have to adapt their methods to the new normal—with individual staff members working remotely from different locations—to boost employee satisfaction as well as a sense of unity and belonging throughout their organization.
Visual presentation skills to play a more important role
Until now, employees have in a sense been evaluated on the basis of soft skills such as the ability to read the room, work in unspoken harmony with others, and gauge the perfect time to act. As online communications become the norm, there will be increasing demand for companies and personnel with the visual communication skills to explain their points in an easy-to-understand manner to both internal and external stakeholders.
The teams of the future will be made up of members with diverse working hours and styles. This makes it all the more important for each and every member to improve their visual presentation skills in order to ensure smooth online communications.
Prioritizing time for family bonding and real-life experiences
One of the key points raised was a fundamental transformation in people’s value systems and mindsets. In a survey by the Cabinet Office, 49.9% of respondents said that they now place increased importance on family, illustrating a growing emphasis on work-life balance. Ms. Komuro says that the true value of face-to-face communication lies in family bonding time and shared experiences that serve to refine one’s sensibilities. She calls for work to be carried out online wherever possible, and for time gained through increased efficiency to be used for experiences that can only be had in person, which would mark a major shift in how we approach work—one that would transform both our professional and personal lives.
Trend Report Team
Information Design Division
Information Design Division
Information Design Division
With assistance from:
- Trend Report: Generation Z says sayonara to labels
- COVID-19: Tips for success in online communications
- COVID-19: Three Communications Responses (Part I)
- COVID-19: Three Communications Responses (Part II)
- Six tips for doing PR in Japan