Insights from BCCJ members on COVID-19

Written by Sterling Content
March 16, 2020


Written by Sterling Content
March 16, 2020

Since being declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization on January 30 (and subsequently a global pandemic) the outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has prompted the Japanese government to close schools, cancel large sporting and cultural events and ask firms to take steps such as remote working, where possible.

Here, Sarah Backley, Associate Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ), shares what’s going on at the BCCJ and what the Chamber has been hearing from member firms in relation to their response to COVID-19.


How is the BCCJ keeping up to date with the latest on COVID-19?

We’re closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19 and directives from the Japanese government. We’re in regular contact with the UK Government as well as local, regional and global partners regarding the evolving situation and we’re following trusted news sources. The situation is changing daily, and we’re taking relevant information and passing what we hope will be useful on to members.


What is the current situation regarding BCCJ events?

The BCCJ’s Executive Committee (Excom) has been closely following developments related to COVID-19, and made the decision in late February to postpone all face-to-face events scheduled until March 15, following directives from the Japanese government regarding large gatherings. We have more recently extended this moratorium until March 31. In the meantime, the BCCJ remains committed to providing opportunities for members to get professional insights on business and to promoting bilateral business links. That’s why we’re exploring the use of digital formats to offer events, starting with the first of our Default to Action series on March 16 “COVID-19: The Leadership Challenge”.

While events are important to a lot of our members, and we are determined to continue to deliver these using a variety of creative online formats, there is definitely a broader role for the BCCJ to play at the centre of the British business community in Japan. Although a completely different crisis, we have strong memories of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the way in which the business community reacted immediately afterwards and in the months and years which followed. The BCCJ will again think short and long term about what it is that the Chamber, as well as our members, can do during this difficult time.


What steps are BCCJ members taking in response to the spread of COVID-19?

We hear from members that their priority is first and foremost the welfare of employees and by extension the wider community. Also, of course, continuity of their business. In terms of wellbeing, it begins with basic measures for helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 like reminding employees to wash and sanitise their hands regularly. Next, is encouraging staff to keep an appropriate distance from others. In line with this, some members have introduced remote working or flexible working hours, so their staff don’t travel during peak commuting times. Members are also checking with office landlords to make sure they understand their policies for cleaning offices and communal building areas, and about COVID-19 communication.


Specifically, what are the platinum members—as global leaders in their fields—doing in response to the crisis?

During a joint call with some of our BCCJ platinum members, it was clear that they all have business continuity plans which guide their approach and the measures they are taking. A number have introduced remote working, and some have introduced restrictions on global travel. Operationally it varies depending on the nature of business, and some leaders also have responsibilities for people and operations outside of Japan. The response varies depending on the situation in each country, so constant monitoring and the need for a flexible response are common themes.

Regardless of their approach, all of them have reported being able to adapt to the changing situation quickly thanks to being equipped with technology for remote and flexible working. In addition, they are working to take care of the emotional wellbeing of their employees, some of whom may feel isolated. In some platinum member companies that have halted face-to-face-meetings and implemented remote working, management teams are holding video calls with staff to check on their wellbeing and help them combat the loneliness of new routines.

Though members say communication from the top is key for staff during this difficult time, it’s important to find the right balance in terms of efficiency and effectiveness between all the technology formats now available.


Looking forward, what are BCCJ members planning for?

Whilst the current focus is on dealing with a situation of increasing seriousness, we have received questions concerning what the situation might need to look like in order to switch to de-escalation and for businesses to go back to normal. Another of these questions is what ‘normal’ might look like in the short, or even long term, considering reports that COVID-19 might become a seasonal virus.

In the short term, though, BCCJ members are taking the health of themselves and their employees seriously, and making plans to check in with their employees regularly. Similar to other countries, the situation in Japan is a challenge for staff—whether they are at the office or working from home—particularly parents who cannot work remotely and who need to consider additional childcare during the time of school closures. In some cases, it’s also disrupted work–life balance. Not always in a negative way though, as remote working provides some families with a chance to see more of each other. Medium-term, it will be interesting to see the impact of remote working on productivity, and whether we’ll see a more sustained shift in working practices after the current situation has passed.

With no immediate end-date for the disruption of COVID-19 in sight, BCCJ member companies are emphasizing the importance of taking care of staff so that they can continue to work productively and safely. There is also a strong sense of commitment to contribute to the wellbeing of the wider community, and to keeping business and supply chains running.