Japan’s biggest power producer, Jera Co., holds executive and other important meetings on the internet and, except for power plant personnel, about 1,300 of the 1,700 employees at its headquarters and branch offices worked from home last week in response to the government’s call to curb social interaction to slow the novel coronavirus.
“We also regularly use internal web meetings every workday,” said Jera spokesman Atsuo Sawaki. “Including about 100 staff who worked at offices at staggered hours to prevent infection, more than 80 percent of our workforce has changed work styles since the coronavirus outbreak. We maintain business continuity by using four different audio and video meeting apps to communicate with other firms globally.”
Jera, run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings, produces about 30 percent of the power in Japan. It is one of a growing list of major companies that are encouraging employees to work from home to minimize exposure to the virus. That in turn is fueling an unprecedented boom for teleconferencing services.
“This is a golden opportunity for the web teleconference industry,” said Masato Tateno, senior analyst at Tokyo-based ITR Corp., which conducts research on such fee-based apps in Japan.
With such companies as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., Sony Corp., NEC Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and Yahoo Japan Corp. all nudging staff to telecommute, the share of full-time employees working from home surged to 27.9 percent nationwide this month from 13.2 percent in March, according to a survey of around 26,000 workers released by Persol Research and Consulting Co. last week. Persol estimates that roughly 7.6 million are now working remotely, up about 4 million in just a month.
A separate survey of 1,158 white-collar workers by NTT Data Institute of Management showed on Monday that the number who telework almost daily has leaped about 12-fold since January and that the use of online meetings has roughly doubled, supported by the ability to record video and take minutes of meetings jointly via software.
Dozens of free and subscription-based apps are available for holding meetings over the web, but true video conferences held over dedicated communication lines require that special equipment be installed in meeting rooms and are usually costlier.
“My research of some web conference providers shows that in the past month or two, several domestic companies in the financial and insurance sectors have purchased web teleconference licenses for an overall workforce of several thousand,” he said. “In addition, the public sector, schools and the financial sector, which previously were not active users, are signing up for web meetings in droves.”
Competition remains tough, with a small number commanding a large share of the domestic market, a trend that has only been accentuated by the viral outbreak, Tateno said.
The survey by NTT Data Institute of Management showed 39.1 percent were using Skype for Business (Microsoft Teams), followed by Zoom (31.7 percent), Cisco Webex (19.3 percent), Google Hangouts (Meet) (17.8 percent) and V-Cube (4.5 percent).
One of the firms benefiting most from the pandemic is Zoom, which has seen daily users surge 20-fold to more than 200 million globally in just three months.
Microsoft’s subscription-based 365 Office suite comes with Microsoft Teams, which enables video conferencing and other services. Users of Teams have ballooned to 44 million globally from 20 million in November, after adding a record 12 million in just a week in March. Microsoft did not give a breakdown for Japan, but Yoshihiro Yamasaki, business group lead for Microsoft 365 in Japan, said in a media briefing late last month that Japanese users posted a record for weekly growth in the same month, mirroring strong growth globally.
Domestic subscription-based vendors such as V-Cube, Ricoh and Japan Media Systems Corp. are among major players seen benefiting from the strong growth, but the increase in demand has been a mixed blessing for the industry. Subsidiaries at Brother Industries Ltd., NTT and Canon Inc. withdrew from the business late last year, ITR’s Tateno said.
Sales of fee-based web conferencing software for fiscal 2019 ended March 31 likely exceeded the 15 percent growth projected last year, given the surge in February and March, he said, adding that the sheer speed at which demand is spreading is making projections for fiscal 2020.
“Some companies have told me that they project a growth of 150 percent or more in fiscal 2020,” Tateno said, adding that demand at the moment is being driven by the job-hunting season, with interviews and briefings for applicants going remote.
“These moves show that it’s getting more difficult for some domestic firms to make the required infrastructure investments to meet the significant increase in users,” he said. “The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for web meeting vendors, but it’s not easy to maintain stable service quality. We’re likely see more vendors being forced to pull out in the future.”
Despite the ease of holding web meetings, concerns about their security have emerged in the wake of the “Zoombombing” fad, which saw uninvited participants crashing teleconfereces held via Zoom’s software.
Zoom, which has apologized for the security lapses and vowed to use all its engineering resources to improve safety, could not be immediately reached for comment and did not reply to a written request for details on its operations in Japan.
Though web conferencing can often increase family time and lower business expenses, one drawback has been an explosion in wasteful meetings, some say. Persol estimates the waste and productivity losses from excessive meetings can typically cost a large company as much as ¥1.5 billion a year.
“Japanese companies that place importance on consultation and excessive web meetings could make workers feel exhausted,” ITR’s Tateno said. “Therefore, managers are being called upon to make sure that they do not place too much of a burden on their colleagues, by refraining from long or back-to-back meetings or using asynchronous tools such as chat besides web conferences.”
Online meetings are also getting a tailwind from local and central government subsidies for small and midsize companies that bolster their IT equipment and network capacity.