On March 13, 2011, just two days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, as massive aftershocks rocked the capital and fears of a radioactive cloud spreading over the country seemed all-too real, Yasuyuki Higuchi, president of a Tokyo-based software company, sat down and typed an email to his 2,200 staff.

“As you know from news reports, the crisis at the quake-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant is continuing. In response to this, we had an emergency disaster risk-management meeting today, and have decided that from tomorrow, everyone will work from home, in principle,” it said. More than half that email’s recipients took his advice.

Two days later, with the situation in Tokyo little changed, Higuchi wrote a second email. This time he removed the “in principle.”

Higuchi was able to issue those two directives because just a month earlier, in February, his company had implemented a new server-based communications system that allowed staff to work from anywhere — whether home, a cafe, a beach in Okinawa or a hotel in Hong Kong. In other words, each of Higuchi’s employees could “telework,” or “e-commute” — and they could do so at a moment’s notice.

During that one week immediately after the disasters, 85 percent of Higuchi’s employees worked from home (the remainder gained permission to attend the office). From around the capital and beyond, this disparate group combined in cyberspace not only to carry out their regular duties, but also to initiate, negotiate and finalize new contracts and projects necessitated by the events of 3/11. So, even as much of Japan came to a standstill, they carried on, little affected.

Higuchi’s company is Microsoft Japan, and in March this year its ability to switch seamlessly to a non-office-based work style immediately after the disasters was recognized when it was awarded the Japan Telework Association’s Chairman’s Prize.

Few readers have likely heard of that prize, let alone the government-mandated JTA that awards it, but most are surely aware of the concept of teleworking — which, to those who have yet to try it, tends to conjure images of Skype-enabled meetings from a hotel poolside, or crunching numbers in Excel from the comfort of one’s living room.

In Japan, teleworking has tended to be championed as a way of improving the “work-life balance.” Thus Japan’s salaryman-fathers, who are famously only bit-part players in their children’s lives, could — through the magic of a broadband Internet connection — work from home and also participate in family meals and children’s play time.

Correspondingly, the nation’s career-women, who in the past had little choice but to quit their jobs after having children, could now ease back into their corporate lives by spending several transitional months working from home.

That thinking was exemplified in the manifesto published by the Democratic Party of Japan when it seized the reins of power after a landslide election victory in August 2009. A section titled “Support for compatibility of work and family” includes a commitment to assist companies seeking to implement telework systems.

And yet the March 11, 2011, disasters were stark indication that teleworking is by no means just about work-life balance. As was symbolized in Microsoft’s receipt of that JTA award, the ability to work from home is a key to risk-mitigation.

In fact it is only a capacity for teleworking that will enable many companies to survive the kinds of disasters that at any moment could prevent their staff from getting to the office.

In Japan, and Tokyo in particular, such risks are manifold and, perhaps, imminent. In January this year, for instance, the University of Tokyo Earthquake Research Institute published the findings of a study that suggested the chance of an earthquake of magnitude 7 or higher striking in the vicinity of Tokyo over the next four years is now 70 percent. In addition, there have been several reports recently pointing to increased activity within the Mount Fuji volcano just 100 km from the capital.

The concept of telework arrived in Japan in the early 1990s. At first, when the JTA was established in pre-broadband 1991 as the Japan Satellite Office Association, its mission was to foster the idea of companies maintaining small offices away from their central head offices to allow workers a little flexibility in their work patterns.

Now, the association — which changed to its JTA name in 2000 — has official public welfare status and is mandated by four government ministries to promote the adoption of teleworking.

In 2011, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry estimated that 12.9 million workers nationwide (19.7 percent of the workforce) then engaged in teleworking, which it defines as “working more than eight hours per week from a location other than the primary office.” Of that number, 4.9 million were estimated to work from home — as opposed to simply working outside of the office.

In accordance with a government policy adopted in 2007 by the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party whose Shinzo Abe was prime minister, it is currently hoped that that the number of employees engaging in telework from their homes will reach 7 million by 2015.

Still, if “teleworker” is defined only as someone who works more than eight hours a week at home, then such data would likely include a significant number who readily engage in unpaid overtime at home.

Akio Sato, a professor at Otemae University, Osaka, writes in his 2008 book, “Telework: The Reality of Futuristic Labor,” that if you deduct such “unwitting” teleworkers, and include only those whose employers actually allow them to work from home instead of coming to the office — generally for a certain number of days per week or month — then Japan’s teleworking population would probably be far less.

Though Sato refrains from putting a number to “far less,” there’s no doubt in any quarter that most of the nation’s true teleworkers would be attached to its blue-chip corporations, several of which have adopted telework policies over the last five years.

Panasonic was one of the first Japanese companies to implement such a policy, allowing more than 30,000 of its group employees to work at home as of April 2007. NEC followed a year later, permitting around 65 percent of its 23,000 employees to work at home up to one day per week, and since then other corporations including Sony and Toyota have followed suit.

In the cases of both Panasonic and NEC, the policy moves — as at Microsoft — aimed to improve their employees’ work-life balance and, at the same time, raise efficiency. “There is a lot of time that is wasted in commuting, especially in Japan,” explained Microsoft spokeswoman Asako Miyata.

Six weeks before the 3/11 disasters, Microsoft had moved to a new office in the south-central Tokyo hub of Shinagawa, and in the process the in-office work environment was also revolutionized. Specifically, for 60 percent of its employees, it adopted a so-called free-address system, which meant they would no longer have their own fixed desks. Instead, they would just have a laptop computer which they would be free to set up each day wherever they pleased in large communal workspaces.

In consequence, the office layout would no longer be designed to reflect the corporate structure, and hence, it was hoped, more meaningful inter-departmental interaction would be possible. Another objective was to save space, as there would be no need to keep fixed desks for salespeople and others whose jobs often keep them out of the office.

“The idea is that as long as you have your computer, you can work anywhere,” Miyata said, adding that special software (a product called Lync) enables instant chatting, videoconferencing, emailing and also telephone communication with such ease that the experience is little different from sitting next to each other.

Of course this new approach to in-office work could easily be adapted to out-of-office work by simple expedients, for example, issuing staff with IC-chip encoded ID cards to log into the company’s internal servers from anywhere by swiping them through card-readers on their laptops.

The days that followed Higuchi’s March 13 request to employees to stay at home were busy for Microsoft. They immediately began building an online calendar documenting rolling blackouts. The following day, work started on building a new website designed to show users of their popular Windows operating system how they could reduce their computers’ energy consumption and thus contribute to energy-conservation efforts in the wake of the explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

And, by March 18, the company had finalized contracts and begun work on a radiation-information website for the Ministry of Education and another site for Toyota documenting roads that were passable in the tsunami-affected northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu.

“We were busy, but the fact that we were all working from home really didn’t present an obstacle to our productivity,” explained Tomoko Harada, a human resources manager at the company.

Company spokeswoman Miyata revealed that, in fact, some of Microsoft’s employees didn’t stay at home at all. They went west to escape radiation, to Osaka and beyond, and worked from there.

Probably unknown to such workers, they were likely counted among the people who were said in certain media to have “fled” Tokyo in the aftermath of 3/11.

Koji Sato, an economics professor at Kanagawa University, took note of such negative coverage — particularly as it pertained to the staff of foreign companies, who were seen to be leaving Tokyo — and decided that it entirely missed the point.

“The fact is that there was a risk something could happen in Tokyo. At the company level, some companies were able to mitigate against that risk, by allowing their employees to work elsewhere,” he said. “Others could not.”

Sato’s lesson: Blame not the employee who teleworked from west Japan after March 11, but criticize the company that was so ill-prepared that it could not instruct its employees to do the same.

The professor says it is no coincidence that the foreign-based companies in Japan tend to be the best prepared for disaster.

“In the United States, the implementation of telework is way ahead of Japan, having accelerated after the Los Angeles earthquake in 1994. The workers there rely heavily on cars for commuting, so when the roads became impassable, it became impossible for thousands of people to go to work,” he explained.

Participation by U.S. government employees in telework schemes also increased markedly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, 53,000 American public servants were teleworking; by 2009 that number had increased to 113,000.

Why hasn’t there been a similar uptake in Japan?

Everyone seems to have a theory, but most amount to a suspicion that Japanese corporations are unwilling to try anything new.

Koichi Izawa, from the JTA, points out that none of current generation of top-level managers in Japanese companies have personal experience of teleworking, and hence they are wary of it. “Of course, they worry that they wouldn’t be able to manage their workers so they knew they were really working,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chiaki Imaizumi, a JTA researcher, added that it is mid-level managers who tend to be the most resistant to teleworking policies. “They are the ones who want to be able to tell a subordinate to do this or that at a moment’s notice, and they feel they won’t be able to if the subordinate is in some remote location,” he said.

Placing limitations on teleworking can go some way to alleviating such fears. For instance, other than at times of emergency, such as March last year, Microsoft only allows its workers to telework up to three days per week.

Curiously, though, management suspicions of teleworking are shared by even the worker population in Japan. This is evident from the results of an international Reuters/Ipsos poll published in July, which revealed that Japan is bottom of a league table of workers who want to telework — with just 38 percent saying they would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to telework on a full- or near-full-time basis if given the opportunity. That figure compares with 50 percent in Germany, 68 percent in South Korea and 77 percent in China, to highlight just three.

More interesting still was the Japanese response to the question of whether they thought teleworkers were likely to be more or less productive than those working in an office. Japan was the only country of the 24 polled where more than half of respondents said teleworkers would be less productive than office-based workers. In Japan, 56 percent thought office workers would be more efficient, compared with 42 percent in the U.S., 32 percent in France, 27 percent in China and 26 percent in India.

It would seem that Japanese workers don’t trust themselves not to slack off if they are allowed to work from home.

Another factor possibly contributing to relatively sluggish uptake of telework in Japan is that significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, which in the U.S. is perceived as a key benefit of telework, would be less applicable in Japan.

“In America, it is more common for commuters to drive their own cars, so it is reasonable to assume that emissions reductions would result from increased telework, but in Japan, the vast majority use public transport, so that is less likely,” explained the JTA’s Imaizumi.

Still, Kanagawa University’s Sato believes questions of employee attitudes and even environmental concerns should actually be secondary considerations. “The establishment of telework schemes should be a question of corporate risk-management,” he said.

Sato went on to point out that in the U.S., of all the government agencies, it is the Pentagon that has the second highest number of teleworkers. “It’s not hard to figure out why,” he said, suggesting that the U.S. Department of Defense would need to be able to continue functioning in the face of any attack on its buildings.

In comparison to this, the adoption of telework in Japan’s public sector is dismally lagging, he said. “How many people in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism do you think telework?” Sato asks. “It’s a few hundred.”

When contacted, a ministry spokesperson pointed out that most of its employees live in government accommodation within walking distance of the ministry. So, in the event that Tokyo’s public transport is rendered unusable (by an earthquake, for example, or Mount Fuji erupting and sending a thick coating of ash over much of the metropolis), then they will still be able to get to work.

But, the JTA’s Imaizumi points out that other disaster scenarios would disallow even that option. “If there was a pandemic and just one person in the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, for example, caught it, then they would have to close down the entire building — so then how could they organize public countermeasures,” he said.

Kanagawa University’s Sato noted another reason that the government should accelerate its adoption of telework: It could be a role model for others. “If Japanese companies saw the government adopting telework, then they would all start to imitate them,” he said.

Sato is also trying to encourage the government to adopt other measures that would in turn encourage the private sector to incorporate telework.

“At the moment it is only the Panasonics and the NECs — the very top companies — that have adopted teleworking. But for the vast majority of Japanese workers, those companies are somewhere up above the clouds, completely out of sight,” he says. “The real problem is the small- to medium-sized companies.”

Sato believes economic incentives such as low-interest loans and preferential treatment during public tenders would be most effective in getting companies to adopt so-called business continuity plans (BCPs) — which would invariably involve a teleworking component.

“A very good example is the Development Bank of Japan, which in August last year began offering reduced interest rates to companies that have BCPs in place,” Sato said. “That was in direct response to the March 11 disasters.”

He also noted that Sapporo City Government in Hokkaido has added BCPs to its criteria for determining the merits of a company’s proposal during public tenders. “The national government and other local governments should do the same,” Sato said.

In fact, this year there has been a small stampede of companies creating and expanding their services related to BCP implementation. A spokesperson for Hitachi Solutions, which bolstered its BCP-related IT services in July, said there had been a noticeable increase in interest since the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Other companies to offer new or expanded BCP-related consulting services this year include Marubeni Information Systems, Yahoo Japan, Nomura Research Institute and NTT Data.

BCPs themselves must be tailor-made not only to a particular company but also to different types of disasters. A manufacturer, for example, would need to have a contingency plan in place if one of its suppliers’ factories is on land that is at risk of flooding. But, as is argued in a recent paper by Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Daisuke Sahori, telework is the one component of a BCP that would apply to pretty much any type of company as a mitigation against pretty much any type of disaster.

“In fact, if telework is promoted as an across-the-board means of achieving business continuity, regardless of the type of crisis, then the uptake of BCPs would increase,” he wrote there.

And there is evidence that such a movement may have begun. According to the JTA, which offers free advice on implementing telework, inquiries from corporations were up 40 percent year-on-year, to about 800 in 2011, and they expect about the same number this year.

However, that is a tiny fraction of the majority of Japanese companies that still have no capacity for telework and no BCP in place.

“Much remains to be done,” Sato said, before adding, ominously, that there’s no telling how long Tokyo — and the rest of Japan — will have before the next disaster strikes.

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