Tokyo businesses adjust to coronavirus pandemic

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has urged all businesses in the seven prefectures included in the state of emergency to reduce the number of in-office workers by at least 70%.

Companies seem to be heeding the call, as the number of people traveling to Tokyo’s 23 wards on the first Monday following the emergency declaration was down 33.4% compared to the first week in March.

The government wants companies to have their employees “predominately work from home” to help reduce commuter traffic. Abe has asked the relevant ministries to urge firms, small and large, to make this a priority.

Yahoo Japan has estimated the number of visitors to Tokyo’s 23 wards by using positional data from mobile phones. The data shows that the central part of Tokyo, where large companies and government offices are concentrated, saw a drastic decline in visitors. Minato Ward was down to 54% of the number of visitors in the first week of March. Chiyoda Ward was down to 55% and Chuo Ward was down to 56%.

On March 2, Minato Ward received about 806,000 visitors. The figure remained the same for around three weeks. But it dropped to 717,000 on March 30, after Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko held an emergency news conference calling on residents to refrain from non-essential excursions. This Monday, the number was down to 436,000, a drop of about 45% from six weeks ago.

Some major companies have already implemented remote work systems to reduce the number of staff members at the office. But this is difficult for many small- and medium-sized companies.

A survey by the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry shows that only 26% of small- and medium-sized firms in Tokyo have introduced remote work systems. 19.5% say they’re considering it, while 54.4% say they have no plans for doing so.

57.1% of firms with more than 300 employees say they have a system in place. But only 14.4% of companies with less than 50 people have done so.

The survey asked companies that haven’t introduced remote work to their cite reasons. 42.3% say they haven’t set up an internal system yet. 31.7% say their equipment, such as computers and other devices, isn’t sufficient to support remote work. 21.7% cite security concerns.

The survey covered about 13,000 companies in Tokyo’s 23 wards. It was conducted between March 13 and 31. More than 1,300 firms responded.

98.7% of companies in Tokyo are either small- or medium-sized. 67.6% of these are located outside of central Tokyo. These areas have seen relatively low decreases in visitors. On the Monday covered by the Yahoo estimate, Nerima Ward still had 81.3% of visitors it received in the first week of March. Itabashi Ward was at 79.8% and Edogawa Ward was at 77.6%.

Kobayashi Yuji, chief researcher at Persol Research and Consulting, says companies can implement a variety of measures to suit their size and location. He suggests that some stagger their hours in order to reduce contact between employees who cannot work from home. But he says all firms should determine which staff members can work from home, and start implementing measures for them to do so immediately.

The Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry has set up a website and launched a consultation service to support small- and medium-sized companies willing to introduce remote work measures.