National

Hokkaido 'workations' breathe fresh air into telecommuting

Municipalities in northern Japan use countryside charms to champion the adoption of flexible working styles by nation's pent-up urban workers

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff Writer

With a view of Mount Shari in the distance and an ocean breeze wafting in from the Sea of Okhotsk, working in this coastal community in northeastern Hokkaido is certainly an escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

The town of Shari, at the foot of the wild Shiretoko Peninsula, has embarked on a unique attempt to get companies in Tokyo to experiment with telecommuting from this popular UNESCO World Heritage site.

Partly using grant funding from the internal affairs ministry, the town spent some ¥4.6 million to convert part of its legal affairs bureau and its director’s residence within, into a working space and guest rooms for telecommuters.

Teleworkers can use the facility’s free Wi-Fi and teleconferencing system to link up with their corporate headquarters in Tokyo and elsewhere. They can also stay at guest rooms on the second floor, which has two bedrooms, a living room and a dining room with a kitchen.

“This year, over 20 companies have so far sent employees to work at this place,” said Hiroaki Yamauchi, secretary-general of Shiretoko Slow Works, a volunteer group facilitating the town’s telework project. “Some companies hold internal meetings here, connecting with their offices across the country through the internet. Others send employees with their families and let them work from this office.”

The Shari experience isn’t just about telecommuting, but about learning how to take “workations,” a combination of work and vacations.

Because Shari is just a 30-minute drive from the Utoro hot springs area, a popular tourism spot, visitors can easily explore the great outdoors by exploring the trails around Shiretoko’s five lakes or taking cruises to watch dolphins and even bears on the wildlife-rich peninsula.

“People say this place has a soothing effect on urban workers who otherwise live hectic lives. With Shari’s location, telecommuters can work in a more relaxed atmosphere and spend time in nature after work or on weekends,” Yamauchi said.

This year, the government designated July 24 as “Telework Day” to encourage companies and other organizations across Japan to let employees work from home or from satellite offices and embrace a variety of work styles. Supported by the initiative, towns, cities and prefectures are trying to use the concept to attract urban workers to their areas.

Last month, this writer had an opportunity to spend five days in Shari and worked remotely from that office. Monitors and video cameras set up at Japan Times headquarters allowed for real-time activities and communication to be carried out between Tokyo and Shari.

Google Chrome Box for Meetings, the teleconferencing system used at Shari, allows users to stay connected for hours from faraway places. Through this system, this writer could speak with colleagues in Tokyo and listen to their conversations as if they were in the same room.

And after work, instead of taking the usual train or taxi home, the writer and her family went out to converse with residents over local seafood for dinner, and visited the green fields of Hokkaido and went out for hiking around Shiretoko’s lakes over the weekend.

The town started the telecommuting project in fiscal 2015, and about 40 companies sent employees to work from Shari in fiscal 2016. About half were IT-related companies, but big names such as Google Inc. and Japan Airlines Co. have also tried it out.

“It was really comfortable working from Shari. With no commuting time, we got up in the morning and could immediately start the day’s work when we were full of energy. We also enjoyed the local food,” said Masayuki Miyashita, manager of Japan Airlines’ HR Strategy Group, who spent four days with five employees in Shari last October.

Miyashita’s group finished work early at around 4 or 5 p.m., went sightseeing in Shiretoko, then dined on seafood at a sushi bar near the satellite office. They also went out for drinks with people in town and spent time with local high school students.

Miyashita said they learned a lot through these exchanges with the community, including how the carrier, which has direct flights to nearby Memanbetsu Airport, is viewed in northern Hokkaido.

At the same time, Shari’s residents have also gained from the encounters. They are often inspired by Tokyoites’ business and marketing ideas, and the high school students often get tips on pursuing their dreams and careers.

Shari, like many other rural towns in Hokkaido, is experiencing depopulation. Town officials said they wanted to halt the trend but thought it was too ambitious to just sell the idea directly to Tokyoites. So they decided it would be more realistic to just offer them short-term places to rest and work, and make them feel more at home through community exchanges in the hope that they would eventually decide to spend more time there.

This program was inspired by a similar program in Kitami, about a 90-minute drive from Shari.

The city is home to Kitami Institute of Technology, a national university with some 2,200 engineering students, according to Yuri Tazawa, head of Telework Management Co., which supports municipalities and companies that adopt telecommuting. Tazawa helped Kitami and Shari get acquainted with the concept.

Kitami is not a tourist destination or world heritage site, but its aspiring engineers are a draw for Tokyo-based companies, she said.

Hoping to connect these students with IT ventures in the capital desperate for computer programmers, the city has created telecommuting offices and invited the ventures to use them for free until December. Thanks to such efforts, more than 400 teleworkers came to work in Kitami, according to Takeshi Matsumoto, the city official in charge of industrial promotion.

It also hosted recruitment gatherings for both sides that have resulted in several internships and hires.

Three of the ventures — I-enter Corp., Willink System, and Kaname — have already set up satellite offices to take advantage of Kitami’s abundant human resources and comfortable working environment.

“Our population has been declining and has dropped below 120,000. Since our population is projected to drop under 100,000 in 15 to 20 years, we would like to slow the pace by encouraging companies to telecommute in Kitami,” Matsumoto said.

According to a 2016 survey by the internal affairs ministry, only about 13.3 percent of businesses let employees work remotely. The ministry aims to increase that to about 30 percent by 2020.

Adopting telecommuting may encourage working mothers and people with disabilities to continue their careers, in addition to reducing urban rush hour congestion. It may also reduce the burden on housewives.

A separate telecommuting survey by Recruit Works Institute found that men who work from home can spend an average of 32.1 more minutes on housekeeping and child-rearing duties than those in the office. The survey was conducted on 48,763 people between Jan. 13 and 31.

Some companies are already adopting the concept to allow employees to work more flexibly.

JAL began promoting workations in July and August, and 34 employees devoted at least five days to the concept.

“If people can work outside the office, it will become easier for our employees to take longer vacations,” JAL’s Miyashita said.

For example, even if a business meeting is scheduled in the middle of an employee’s vacation, the employee can attend it via teleconference instead of ruining the entire vacation by returning to the office. That way, more employees can take longer vacations, allowing them to even go overseas, the company said.

However, for telecommuting to spread, people need to change their way of thinking.

“Thanks to the latest IT technologies, it has become easier for people to work remotely. But some people still feel those who work at home may be goofing off,” said Miyashita.

“For companies to adopt telecommuting systems more widely, both managers and their staff need to change their mindsets.”