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Thursday, Sep. 8, 2011

Outlooks on work and life altered by quake

Drive to save power in workplace has wider impact on lifestyles


By SAWAKO OBARA
Kyodo

The March earthquake and tsunami devastated the landscape as well as the lives and livelihoods of people in the northeast.

But the effect of the catastrophe went well beyond that as it had a significant psychological impact on other Japanese who did not get a direct hit. The immense human tragedy became a profound occasion for many Japanese to reflect on their lives and work.

Their mind-set has also changed because their work-life balance has shifted after many companies began letting more employees work outside their offices amid the electricity shortage caused by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

On Wednesdays, Waka Aoki, a 33-year-old employee of phone carrier KDDI Corp., now begins work at 9:30 a.m. at her home in Chiba Prefecture.

On other weekdays, she commutes for an hour to her Toyko office after hurriedly preparing a breakfast and taking her 1-year-old daughter to a day care center.

But it is different on Wednesdays when she gets to spend more time with her child. "Here I can use the Internet as easily as in my office," she says. "I can focus more on work (at home) and get more things done."

KDDI expanded its telecommuting and flextime plans in late June. Under the new system, some employees are allowed to work at home in the afternoon so the company can conserve energy. Now about 40 percent of the 4,500 workforce at its Tokyo head office telecommute.

Satoru Ito, 33, another KDDI worker, says he and his wife recently ate out by themselves for the first time in a long while before their daughter returned home from kindergarten. His wife is also happy with Ito's new work schedule because he was able to look after her and their child when she fell ill.

KDDI is considering extending the new work plan beyond its current expiration date of Sept. 30.

At Pfizer Japan Inc., employees working on each floor of its head office in Tokyo began in July taking turns to work at home.

This enabled Nobuyuki Kimura, 35, to have dinner with his 1-year-old and 3-year-old children on a weekday for the first time. When he works at his office, he can't make it home by 5 p.m., when the youngsters eat.

"The only problem is that it's difficult to keep my kids' voices out of the phone when I'm in a conference call," he says. "If the new work system continues, I'd like to work at home one or two weekdays each week," so he can have more quality time with his kids.

The percentage of people whose companies let them telecommute through the use of the Internet jumped to 20 percent after the quake, compared with 14 percent before, according to an online survey covering around 1,000 workers in June by NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting Inc. The percentage is especially high — 45 percent — among employees of foreign companies operating in Japan.

Besides work schedules, priorities appear to have changed significantly. The percentage of people who said they place priority on earning a high salary dropped to 24 percent from the prequake 34 percent, according to a poll AXA Life Insurance Co. carried out in June on 10,000 adults in their 20s through 50s in the Tokyo area.

Those who want to climb the corporate ladder decreased to 6 percent from 11 percent. Increases were observed in the numbers of people who said they want to work near their families or that they put their families first rather than work.

"Many people have become more concerned about the safety of their families after the quake and began to have clearer ideas about what their priorities in their lives should be," says Yoshie Komuro, president of Work Life Balance Co., a Tokyo consulting firm specializing in employment matters.



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