For the past almost three years, COVID has dominated the headlines with a terrible toll on lives, freedom, travel, commerce, mental health and physical well-being. Despite this unprecedented situation, some remarkable and unexpected positive effects have emerged from the dramatic changes this pandemic has brought. In this article, I will briefly touch upon the general societal impact as well as highlight the specific impact to the Japanese legal profession. As this topic is very expansive, I have selected below five of the most notable examples we have seen during the past few years.
Japan has long struggled with equality in the legal profession and in the larger workforce as a whole, driven by a mixture of traditional thinking, historical precedent, educational access, selection bias, societal expectations, and in some part by the limitations and barriers we impose upon ourselves. Since 2005, when I started legal recruiting in Japan, I have witnessed some improvement but at a very slow pace, and have seen many of the traditional stereotypes surrounding children and family commitments used to limit advancement and promotion of women. However, since the proliferation of remote working from early 2020, suddenly for the first time, everyone has been provided the same flexibility and work systems, liberating them from the expectation of long hours both at the office and out at nomikai after work and essentially providing a level playing field. Performance, efficiency, quality and delivery could finally be measured without reference to the number of hours spent at the office or whether work was performed at home or in the office. Speaking to many female lawyers, the transition to hybrid or remote working was actually very easy as they already had experience juggling many different demands pre-pandemic and had developed high competency in time management, multitasking and creative problem-solving. This was also true for those male lawyers who required greater flexibility due to their individual circumstances and would otherwise be frowned upon for lack of “face time” at the office. Breaking this traditional stereotype or stigma has been a true step forward for many and opened doors to greater career opportunities.
Greater flexibility and satisfaction
With most companies now offering a hybrid work environment and flexible working hours, we have seen an increase in general job satisfaction and the ability to combine quality work and quality family time in a way unimaginable in the past. This has in turn changed values and individual perceptions. A recent survey from Major, Lindsey & Africa and the JICN (Japan In-House Counsel Network) found that flexible working now has replaced salary as the most important stated consideration when changing and selecting jobs. For those lawyers working in multinationals where calls with the US and Europe were frequent, the ability to take breaks in the day and manage the home/work balance has made these irregular calls much more manageable and less of a burden. With the nature of many legal tasks being largely computer and document driven, coupled with the unpredictability of working hours and frequently urgent nature of client requests, the option of working remotely has at least allowed lawyers a new degree of freedom.
To allow this greater flexibility, companies were forced to update aging technology and processes, a capital investment which will bear fruit for many years to come. This monetary investment has incentivised companies to maximise the use of such technology and discourages them from returning to old ways of thinking and operating. Lastly, this flexibility has allowed companies to take advantage of new cost-saving options in both office and lease costs as well as transportation cost of employees to and from work.
This greater flexibility was not a change that was easy to implement as it required great expenditure in IT infrastructure, legal process and systems and presented new HR challenges, including hiring challenges and logistics, but it has brought great benefit in terms of not just employee satisfaction but also efficiency. In the above-mentioned survey, we noted that almost all respondents stated that remote working systems had made them “more” efficient than before, which echoes the sentiments we have heard in countless discussions with lawyers both senior and junior over the past couple of years. In Tokyo, where relatively long commuting times are normal, the time saved has allowed individuals to log in to work earlier than normal, respond more quickly and save on cost. Equally, the ability to set virtual meetings back-to-back, the digitization of certain processes and the absence of colleagues stopping by for a chat have all led to tangible increases in employee efficiency.
Greater awareness of mental health
Mental health has long been a taboo subject in Japan, but thanks in large part to greater awareness driven by media, real-life tragedies, better corporate programs and individual efforts, we have seen tangible strides made. While there is still wide variation in available support provided from company to company, ranging from few resources to benefits including paid access to mental health professionals, helplines, compassionate or health leave, wellness programs and others. The very fact that it is recognized and at the forefront of discussions is a huge leap forward, especially for a traditionally conservative legal sector. Several stress factors such as overwork have been ameliorated by flexible work systems and the removal of peer pressure in companies where traditionally it was standard practice to stay at the office until your boss returned home. While isolation and pressures of individual responsibility for time management raise their own challenges, there is a greater recognition in leadership that these areas need to be addressed and support provided.
It is often said that to truly appreciate the good times, one must first know the bad times, and this has been proven true by COVID. We are beginning to see green shoots of recovery and normalcy in our daily lives, such as the great joy as friends reunite in person after years and people re-experience travel for the first time in ages. This was clearly evident during a recent GC dinner we hosted at Happo-en, where the exhilaration and happiness of friends and professional acquaintances gathering together after such a long absence was palpable. The need to have to usher people to the doors at the end of the night evidenced attendees’ desire to savour every second of the reunion. It is human nature to take for granted pleasures we can experience whenever we wish, and it is perhaps to our benefit to occasionally gain reminders to stop and appreciate these precious blessings.
While it is important to not forget the terrible loss and hardship of the pandemic, and it is false to state that there is no downside to the resulting workplace changes, it is often said that the greatest advancements and progress are made in times of disaster or challenge, as we as a species learn to adapt to enforced changes. This seems to have been true especially in countries such as Japan that enjoy a great level of stability and comfort, so our challenge moving forward is to ensure we build on this momentum for the future. Our ability to embrace the positives and learn from the negatives will determine how we exit this period and what legacy we will leave behind.