Japan to test-drive teleworking ahead of 2020 Olympics | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 24.04.2017
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Japan to test-drive teleworking ahead of 2020 Olympics

Tokyo's famously congested public transport system will face added pressure during the games, so the government is pushing firms to break with tradition and allow employees to work from home. Julian Ryall reports.

Every day, 40 million passengers travel aboard a train in the Greater Tokyo area. The subway and above-ground railway system has more than 150 lines, 48 operators, some 2,705 kilometers of operational track and 1,510 stations. But those impressive statistics tell only half the story; Tokyo's public transport systems have become victims of their own success and are notorious for being over-crowded.

According to statistics collated by the transport ministry, average capacity at the busiest times of the day in Tokyo comes to around 164 percent, a level that has been steady for around 15 years. That figure - which denotes the additional amount of passengers above the ideal benchmark set by the ministry per carriage - is a significant improvement from that of the 1970s, when it came to 221 percent, but still makes commuting a daily test of endurance for millions of men and women.

And that is just one reason why crushed commuters and concerned companies have broadly welcomed the announcement by the government that July 24 will be Japan's first "Day of Telework."

Added family time

Under the plan, companies are being asked to encourage their employees to work from home, if possible, easing congestion on public transport and providing a number of additional benefits to workers - including a lie-in of a morning and the chance to spend more time with their families.

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The date of the experiment is significant, insofar as the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will take place on July 24 of that year. 

The government hopes that in the intervening years more companies will recognize the benefits of having staff work from home in order to cut the number of commuters competing with spectators to travel around the city when the Games begin.

Announcing the program, Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi said, "During the Tokyo Olympics, we are expecting serious traffic congestion, particularly on the day of the opening ceremony.

"We believe teleworking will have a significant impact on easing traffic congestion and commuter crowding," she noted.

The Japan Telework Association, which has been campaigning for more than a decade for just this approach to tackle the problems associated with the traditional approach to working, is delighted.

"We welcome this initiative by the government and believe teleworking can have a significant impact on Japanese people's lives," said Tatsuo Suzuki, a researcher with the organization.
"There are many reasons why teleworking is a good idea in Japan, only one of which is to reduce overcrowding on public transport as Tokyo prepares to host the Olympics," he told DW. But there are other benefits, he emphasized.

Positive for parents

"For young mothers who have to work, taking care of their children can be difficult," he said. "Allowing them to work from home - and without having to leave very early to travel to their office - means they are still working and earning but they are also able to be with their children.

"Our studies also show that people who telework tend to take breaks from their work more frequently but are also more efficient," he said. "Perhaps they will stand up and do some housework before returning to their work tasks. We see that as another positive."

Teleworking also means that families are together for more of the day, which is healthy for Japanese society, Suzuki said.

Yet not all companies are embracing the concept, he admitted.

"Lots of companies - the more advanced ones - have already introduced some form of teleworking or flexible working, but not all Japanese firms are ready to take that step yet," he said. "The more conservative companies still need more time before they see the positives."

To encourage the companies that are dragging their feet, the association hopes to convince the national government to provide tax incentives to companies that meet a target of teleworking employees.

Flexible working

One of the companies that have signed up to take part in the first teleworking event is Japan Airlines Co., the national carrier and employer of more than 32,000 people across the country.

"Some of our departments have already introduced flexible working hours and staff work whenever it is most convenient for them or they can go home early when there is nothing for them to do, as long as they put in a certain amount of hours every month," said Jian Yang, of JAL's public relations office.

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"We started that system last year and it has proved very popular with the employees," he said. "I enjoy it myself; I can share my mobile phone number with contacts and I can always be contacted even when I am not in the office, so it is an efficient and pleasant way to work."

Taking part in the July teleworking experiment will enable the company to test its positives and negatives, Yang said, but there is an expectation that it will have no negative impact on employees' efficiency and will instead increase staff satisfaction with their jobs.

There are also spin-off opportunities that Japan's most innovative companies have been quick to identify as potential new sources of business.

Domestic cosmetics giant Shiseido, for example, is putting the finishing touches to a new app that will allow women who work from home but need to take part in teleconference meetings to apply "virtual makeup" for the duration of the meeting.

Known as TeleBeauty, the app uses Microsoft Japan's Skype for Business and offers a choice of four makeup patterns for the user, along with adjustable complexion and lip colors.
The app was inspired by Shiseido staff who said it was a nuisance to have to apply cosmetics for a brief teleconference when they were working from home.

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