Disaster mitigation and a better “work-life balance” for staff are not the only benefits of having employees working outside the office, an increasing range of companies are now coming to realize.

Among these are two that are each pioneering a unique application for telework — one as means to help revitalize Japan’s rural communities and the other to provide gainful employment to people with physical disabilities.

Sansan was founded five years ago by Chicahiro Terada, its now 36-year-old president who had previously worked with blue-chip trading house Mitsui & Co. Its key product is an online tool allowing for the storage and sharing of business cards between colleagues.

“We wanted to change the way Japanese salarymen did business,” explained Moto Tsunokawa, the finance and human resources director. That desire to shake up corporate culture is also reflected in Sansan’s own work environment.

Two years ago, the company formed a relationship with Green Valley, a nonprofit organization active in revitalizing the rural community of Kamiyama, tucked in the mountains of Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.

“Our president had spent time in Silicon Valley, and had been impressed with its wide open spaces and clean air. In contrast, Tokyo was crowded and, even if you go outside to relax, you have to contend with exhaust fumes,” Tsunokawa explained.

Consequently, the Sansan president decided to rent an old farm house in Kamiyama so staff could work and live there for short periods of time. “The idea was to improve the productivity of the programmers, in particular, by giving them a place they could go to to concentrate on their work,” Tsunokawa said.

Several rules were established. Stays in Kamiyama would be voluntary; the company would pay transportation costs from and back to Tokyo; stays would have to be at least two weeks in duration; and, most importantly, employees in Kamiyama would be expected to work as though they were in Tokyo, clocking in at 10 a.m. and out at 6 p.m., as well as participating via Skype in meetings being held at the head office.

“We actually have a computer here in Tokyo that provides a constant video feed of the workspace in Kamiyama, and they have the same there, so you can literally call out to people as though they were in the same room,” Tsunokawa said.

He was also pleased to report that the programmers’ productivity increases significantly when they reside in Kamiyama. “There isn’t much else to do down there,” he explained wryly.

In light of such success, the company has recently expanded the program to encompass all its 60 employees, in an approach that more or less conforms with the old “satellite office” style of telework.

However, following a decision earlier this year, Sansan has gone a significant step further with the adoption of home-working, too.

“We initially thought that, as a start-up, it was important to foster a strong group consciousness among our team, and so we were worried that would be undermined by allowing some employees to work away from the office,” Tsunokawa said. “Then Kamiyama showed us our fear was unfounded.”

The other factor that spurred Sansan’s home-working move was the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and the tsunami and nuclear disasters that ensued.

“In the immediate aftermath, people weren’t able to commute, so we had no choice but to install a VPN (Virtual Private Network; a secure network that allows remote access),” Tsunokawa said. “With that, we have the infrastructure necessary to have our workers work from home,” he explained.

In fact, Tsunokawa believes there is now nothing to stop companies from instituting telework schemes. “Technologically, there are no impediments. And yet there are several benefits, from improved productivity to risk mitigation in the event of disasters,” he noted. “The only thing stopping more companies from adopting it is the psychological barrier.”

One company that needs no convincing of the merits of telework is Qol Assist, a subsidiary of the major pharmacy-operator Qol. In fact, Qol Assist is entirely predicated on the concept of telework, as almost all of its employees are people with physical disabilities who work from home.

“In 1976, the national government imposed a non-binding quota on companies with more than 56 employees such that 1.8 percent of their workforce should be made up of people with physical disabilities,” Qol Assist spokesman Ei Aoki explained.

Aoki and his colleagues knew that there were many very capable people with disabilities, but that the rigors of commuting tended to inhibit them from taking full-time jobs. “People with physical disabilities often need to have regular health checkups and rehabilitation, which makes it difficult to keep to regular work hours,” Aoki said.

The solution Qol Assist arrived at was to remove the commute from the equation by offering home-based positions.

“It has been a great success,” Aoki said. “The key task we do is to calculate the salaries for the parent company’s 2,250 pharmacy employees, but we have diversified into maintaining the group’s websites and also creating illustrations for use with company products — manuals and so on.”

He echoed the sentiment of Sansan’s Tsunokawa, saying that the psychological barrier to telework is generally the toughest for companies to overcome.

“Ultimately, you have to learn to trust your own workers,” he reasoned. “It’s actually just the same as having workers out doing sales calls. You don’t really know that they’re not sitting in the park all day. You have to trust them.”

Qol Assist is quite free with its workers, requiring only that they work a total of between 140 and 170 hours per month. “Most people do about six hours per day between about 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.,” Aoki said.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of employees considering a switch to teleworking, a fear of loneliness often looms quite large. Even if telework is not a full-time choice (as at Qol Assist), some people might rue even a slight reduction in opportunities for intra-company socializing: What would happen to all those chats over the water-cooler?

In Qol Assist’s case, of course, such fears are writ large as its home-based workers never get to meet their coworkers face to face. As a result, Aoki decided to provide a virtual “water-cooler” of sorts, in the form of a private, staff-only blog on which employees are encouraged to write about their hobbies, families and so on.

“It’s become quite popular,” Aoki said. “The workers seem to really enjoy fraternizing online.”

Qol Assist’s program has proved so successful that they employed another seven new home-based staff in April — a hiring operation that required Aoki, as human resources director, to travel the length and breadth of Japan to conduct face-to-face interviews.

If anything, he was slightly wary about other companies emulating his efforts. “At the moment we have the pick of the very best people,” he said with a laugh. “But, still, I think the potential for further use of telework is enormous.”

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