Fumiharu Mieno, Kyoto University: The paper by Toshihiro Okubo, Atsushi Inoue, and Kozue Sekijima investigates how much telework spread in Japan and changed worker efficiency because of COVID-19, based on a large-scale questionnaire survey.
The paper conducted a survey in April and June 2020 on employees who shifted to telework, asking them about the change in working environment and their subjective impressions of their own working efficiency. The results found various stylized facts: (1) the earlier the shift to telework, the better the worker's efficiency; (2) experience and number of telework hours matter more for efficiency than workers’ base ICT skills; (3) the positive effect of telework on efficiency is highest in very small establishments and large-sized companies; (4) as for work environment, a flexible time management system enhanced the efficiency-improving effect of telework, while a results-based evaluation system led to the opposite effect; and (5) workers’ efficiency tended to increase when more hours were spent on teleworking, as opposed to spending their time on non-work activities like leisure time, housekeeping/childcare, and sleeping.
First of all, I congratulate the authors’ timely contribution to this urgent social issue. Although the survey and analysis appear simple, the findings are clear and instrumental.
I would like to offer a few comments. First, the major shortcoming of the authors’ analysis is that the key indicator for working efficiency used for the dependent variable is derived wholly from a respondent's subjective impressions alone. Although this is inevitable due to the urgency of the subject matter, this reliance on subjective information can cause unclear interpretations of some observations. For example, the negative effect of a results-based evaluation system on efficiency as stated in (4) can be viewed simply as workers being dissatisfied with how they are being evaluated while working remotely, and having nothing to do with efficiency. Further, the finding in (5) that those who allocate more time to working feel their efficiency improved, sounds like a tautological statement.
To provide another example, the perception of improved efficiency and performance that workers report may simply be a reflection of the intensity or difficulty of their work tasks, regardless of whether it was due to teleworking. Also, the employment size of businesses and companies may correlate with certain management policies such as results-based evaluation systems or flexible work arrangements. Careful examination of such interaction effects from independent variables would bring about richer details and information.
The paper seems to refrain from offering deeper interpretations and policy implications of their findings, which appears at this time to be the correct attitude considering the urgent and topical nature of the subject matter, but, as such, some issues that have emerged from the authors’ analyses remain unresolved pending future inquiry.