Japanese workers battle tents and toddlers on the home front
Japan’s salarymen and women, the corporate troops who built one of the world’s biggest economies, are struggling with tents, earplugs and wandering toddlers in their hardest battle yet — the home front.
Their struggle with coronavirus, telework and poorly-segregated living rooms will push Japan into a fundamental rethink of the way its homes are designed, said the head of one of the nation’s biggest housebuilders.
The observation by Akira Ichikawa, chairman of Sumitomo Forestry, comes as Japanese office workers wrestle with the logistics of working from home and have discovered just how ill-suited the average apartment and house is to the job.
Many Japanese homes are extremely small. Few have any built-in separate spaces for undisturbed work for one person, let alone for both halves of the many working white-collar couples.
Japanese housebuilders made a conscious effort to maximise the open areas inside homes and to spin this as a positive benefit to families, said Mr Ichikawa. They were able to do this because of a strong culture of office “presenteeism” that had historically suppressed the habit of working from home.
“The idea, and it was popular, was that open space allowed the family to physically see one another and that brought everyone closer. But from now on, people will want some of that but also isolated spaces in the home,” he said, adding that the inclusion of a small office/home office (SOHO) unit in new homes would become a necessity.
DCM Holdings, a home centre retailer, said sales of small camping tents had tripled in the past two weeks, as housebound workers have being driven to extremes to secure a private office and ensure that offspring do not wander into sensitive video calls.
Sanwa Supply, one of Japan’s largest office equipment companies, has gone one step further. It has entered the fledgling home-division market with the Privacy Tent, a 150cm tall, fully-enclosed room that is just big enough for a desk and a chair and can be instantly assembled and tucked into the corner of a living room.
Sanwa says inquiries are pouring in, but its $74 invention is only a temporary solution as Japan, and the world, contemplates a prolonged crisis with possible recurrences for years. Even with its roof and side-flaps closed, and its viewing window blind down, the tent does not insulate its inhabitant from noise.
Sumitomo Forestry and rivals Daiwa House and Asahi Kasei have begun work on redesigning new homes and offering remodelling services for existing houses and apartments.
As Mr Ichikawa and others pointed out, the virus-related edicts for Japanese employees to work from home have exposed the country’s unpreparedness to deal with such a shift, despite government efforts in recent years to convince corporations to allow their staff greater flexibility and “work style” reform.
A recent survey by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry showed that among small and medium-sized companies in the capital, only about a quarter had introduced remote work systems and over half said they had no plans to do so.
The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.