Digitalization and Telework during the Spread of Covid-19: Evidence from Japan.

Research outcomes of the Program for the Advancement of Next Generation Research Projects

Faculty of Economics
Toshihiro Okubo

Toshihiro Okubo, a professor of international economics at Keio University's Faculty of Economics, has investigated the impact of digitalization on the Japanese economy and globalization in several fields such as international trade, spatial economics, economic geography, and labor economics.

The COVID-19 virus began to spread around the world in January 2020, providing an opportunity to widely popularize the concept of teleworking and the necessary digital tools in Japan. The first state of emergency was declared in April 2020, and the number of infections and deaths in Japan had been much lower than in the United States and Europe. Japan did not completely close its national borders or lock down its cities, but instead, rather than instituting a complete lockdown and attempting to control the people with penalties and sanctions, the Japanese government requested people to refrain from leaving their homes, and encouraged telecommuting and telework, without the threat of penalties and punishment. This was unheard of among the developed nations, with the exception of Sweden.

To investigate the progress of teleworking and digitalization during the time that COVID-19 was sweeping the globe, Okubo and the National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA) conducted a survey on telework titled "Questionnaire Survey on the Effects of the Spread of COVID-19 on Telework-based Work Styles, Lifestyle, and Awareness," also called the "Okubo-NIRA Telework Survey." The survey was conducted in nine waves from April 2020 to March 2023. Each wave questioned over 10,000 workers living in Japan. The questionnaire asked about basic characteristics (age, gender, occupation, income, place of residence, etc.), employment status, teleworking, commuting, digitalization, daily life, life satisfaction, and working environment. In the survey, telework is defined as working at a specific place (at home or in a public facility) for a specific number of hours using information and communications technology (ICT). Their definition of ICT did not include the use of ICT devices at locations such as stations, airports, transportation facilities, and the premises of business partners.

The results of the survey can be visualized in the graph below that plots telework utilization rate over time. The green line indicates the national average, while the blue line indicates the Greater Tokyo region (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama prefectures). In January 2020, before COVID-19 hit Japan, the national average of telework was only 6%, and the average for Greater Tokyo was about 10%. In response to the first state of emergency from April to May 2020, the telework rate increased drastically, reaching 25% nationally and 38% in the Greater Tokyo region. However, after the first state of emergency was lifted in June 2020, the rate of telework decreased, but has remained higher than the pre-pandemic levels of January 2020 and slightly increased in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in September 2020. The rate has held steady since.

When the number of COVID-19 infections gradually decreased in late 2022 and the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, the utilization of telework steadily declined (13% for the nation average and 23% for the Greater Tokyo region as of March 2023). Many people resumed commuting and working at their workplaces. In spite of this, the rate of remote work is still higher than the pre-COVID-19 era, showing that even after the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are continuing to telework to enjoy the benefits of remote work and improve their work-life balance.

The rate of teleworking varies according to occupation (see Okubo [2022a] for more details). Data processing engineers, management consultants, administrative and management workers, and researchers display higher rates of utilization, whereas workers in carrying services, cleaning, packaging, etc., workers in family support, food and beverage, customer service, and those in manufacturing processes display low rates. This indicates that some occupations related to information services and office workers tend to have a comparatively high rate of the utilization of telework, whereas telework is not suited to face-to-face services and manual labor.

Using the Okubo-NIRA Survey, Okubo and his team investigated several academic papers published in a number of international journals. For example, which factors (infection of COVID-19, individual characteristics, task characteristics, and working environments) are associated with telework use? The findings indicate that educated, high ICT-skilled, younger, and female workers who engage in less teamwork and less routine tasks tend to use telework. Working environments, a wealth of IT communication tools at their disposal, digitalized offices, and flexible-hour working systems are all positively correlated with telework use. The team also found that teleworkers' efficiency fell by around 20 percent during the pandemic, although those who had already started teleworking between April 2016 and January 2020 tended to maintain their efficiency. Teleworker efficiency correlates to experience and the number of teleworking hours rather than by the workers' ICT skills. Furthermore, teleworking efficiency is positively affected by the work environment (e.g., flexible hours) and good mental health. The team also studied demand-inducing policies targeting the hotel and restaurant industries, known as the GO-TO campaign, during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that educated persons with high ICT skills, tended to use these programs. Besides digitalization, using the Okubo-NIRA survey, Okubo and his collaborators also shed light on vaccination behaviors of the general populace.


Telework use over time in Japan



  1. Baldwin, R. and Okubo, T. (2023) "Are Software Automation and Teleworkers Substitutes? Preliminary Evidence from Japan", The World Economy, forthcoming.
  2. Okubo, T., Inoue, A., & Sekijima, K. (2021a). Teleworker performance in the COVID-19 era in Japan. Asian Economic Papers, 20(2), 175-192.
  3. Okubo, T., Inoue, A., & Sekijima, K. (2021b). Who got vaccinated for COVID-19? Evidence from Japan. Vaccines, 9(12), 1505.
  4. Okubo, T. (2022a). Telework in the spread of COVID-19. Information Economics and Policy, 60, 100987.
  5. Okubo, T. (2022b). Traveling and eating out during the COVID-19 pandemic: The Go To campaign policies in Japan. Japan and the World Economy, 64, 101157.

Keio University Program for the Advancement of Next Generation Research Projects

The Keio University Program for the Advancement of Next Generation Research Projects subsidizes research costs with the aim of finding solutions to challenges and of promoting global academic research in order to allow Keio University faculty members to establish a presence as core researchers.