One of Japan's major snack food makers, Calbee, conducted an operational review last month. Management decided to extend teleworking indefinitely, with about 800 employees clocking in from home.
The firm has canceled an allowance it supplied for commuter passes. Instead, it is offering a new subsidy for costs related to working from home.
"We realized that we can work anywhere," says Takeda Masako, General Manager of Calbee's Human Resources and General Affairs Division. "There is a need for every worker to change the way they work, not just to do at home what they did in the office."
Many employers have similar arrangements in place, but for some people, the new environment is taking time to get used to. A recent survey by Recruit Management Solution found that nearly half of work-from-home employees are not giving or receiving feedback like they used to. About 40 percent say they miss being able to chat and share ideas.
That is where the virtual office setup steps in. It is a service designed to make "remote work" feel less so.
Advertising employee Himeda Wakako works out of a satellite office in suburban Tokyo. Every morning, she and her colleagues sign into their virtual office. Her coworkers are in a variety of physical locations, but they feel well connected.
They set their own avatar status to "available," "away," "on the phone" or "busy". To check if someone is available, all they need to do is move a cursor.
The employees feel like they are working under the same roof. That is partly because they can check on each other's status in the virtual office.
The president of the firm that employs Himeda says the virtual office is helpful. "Japanese workers try to read the situation and carry out their duties accordingly. Since we cannot see others' situations while teleworking, I think many workers find it hard to communicate," says Miyata Shiho.
Himeda says she can call on colleagues directly, even for small issues. "I have experienced great ideas coming out from casual conversations in a real office," she explains. "I think this system provides a very close environment."
Virtual offices are becoming the new normal for some firms in Japan. They can foster strong teamwork, no matter where the employees are located.