When ‘Remote Work’ Goes ‘Really Remote’

Covid-19 pandemic drives dramatic changes to workforces

By: Xiaochen Su

The work-at-home movement spawned by the Covid-19 epidemic is raising the possibility that new foreign employees could find and then work for employers without the need to ever physically set foot in the employer country at all.

Japan, because of its shrinking domestic workforce and its growing restrictions on travel because of the virus, is in a unique position to take advantage of this trend, with major recruiters establishing dedicated pages to post jobs that are primarily remote or home-based work. While the listings are still short and choices limited, as more Japanese companies adopt remote work, the number of virtual posts available to recruitment agencies is bound to increase.

Indeed, many recruitment agencies have begun advertising their own remote work positions in a bid to push their corporate clients to offer virtual positions in the same way. Nor is Japan alone. The remote worker movement is growing sharply. With multinationals including tech companies such as Google and others furloughing employees well into 2021, increasing numbers of people, aided by instant telecommunications, are becoming untethered from geography.

Some 43 percent of Americans as long ago as 2016, for instance, reported doing at least some work remotely. In a field pioneered by business process offshoring, which linked corporate back shops to processing companies particularly in the Philippines and India, it is now individuals who are beginning to benefit, driven in large part by the onset of the Coronavirus, which has infected 16.8 million people worldwide, taken 650,00 lives and severely limited international business travel.  

At least nine countries including tropical paradises such as Barbados and Bermuda offer year-long visas for such so-called “digital nomads.” Others include Georgia and Estonia, which recently announced a “Digital Nomad Visa” (DNV) for foreigners doing remote work for a company registered abroad and freelancers to legally live in the country for a year. Applications will open on August 1 at select embassies and consulates. Those seeking such visas must provide evidence of income for six months preceding submission, monthly income more than €3,504, and other requirements.

In Japan, 1.6 million overseas workers have in-migrated to take the place of falling numbers in the worker-age population. But now officials are restricting the influx of foreign travelers at a time when labor is constricted. Officials mistakenly thought they had the virus under control only to see new cases grow from a trickle to nearly 1,000 per day with total deaths reaching nearly 1,000. As a traditionally insular nation, Japan is painstakingly cautious about the prospect of importing new cases from inbound travelers.  

This continued restriction of movement and the demand for workers present opportunities for foreigners seeking careers in Japan. Major Japanese firms like Fujitsu and NEC have put in place plans for some employees to work permanently from home. The demand for workers is still there even in the depth of the crisis, with Japan’s unemployment rate only ticking up from 2.5 percent to 2.6 percent in May while joblessness has soared into double digits in the US and western Europe.

This change in the workplace environment is not lost on job-finding professionals. Recruitment agencies, which introduce job seekers to prospective employers for a fee, have long dominated how experienced professionals in Japan find jobs. These recruiting agencies are maintaining their dominance partly by quickly adjusting their offerings for foreign professionals accordingly, with greater emphasis on virtual and remote work offerings.

Foreign professionals seeking virtual positions in Japan haven’t been left out of the recruiters’ shifting strategy. “Remote work in Japan” listings have gone live on English recruiting websites, with positions ranging from the more technical such as engineers and consultants to more humanities-oriented, including writers and therapists. The positions specifically note that applicants, if hired, can be based anywhere as long as they can be available for work and communication within dedicated times of the day.

However, for those seeking work in a Japanese company while being based outside the country, understanding the fine print of the employment contract is doubly important. Foreign remote workers outside Japan may not be provided with all the benefits that their domestic counterparts would be. The lack of company-provided health insurance, as a standard non-salary perk for full-time employees in Japanese firms, may be particularly problematic as infections continue to soar in some jurisdictions.

Working outside the country also creates ambiguities concerning whether income taxes and pensions, among other government-mandated salary deductions, need to be paid in Japan or the employee’s country of residence. Perhaps worse of all, should a conflict between the employee and the remote worker emerge, it cannot easily thrash out through legal means in one particular agreed-upon geographic location accessible to both the employee and the employer.

For foreigners seeking to remote work for Japanese firms during and after the Covid crisis, prudent research is certainly needed. While Japan Inc. will increase shift toward and advertise remote work positions for foreign workers, the contractual obligations firms have toward employees permanently based outside Japan remain murky at best. Before being attracted to the growing listing of work from home options presented by recruitment agencies, foreign job seekers would be wise to figure out just how to work from home.

Xiaochen Su is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at the University of Tokyo

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