Telecommuting in Japan Is Getting Serious Ahead of the 2020 Olympics

Telecommuting in Japan could reduce traffic congestion

Imagine if your neighbors threw a party on your street but asked you to watch from home. That’s the proposition facing Tokyo’s workforce as the city prepares to host the biggest party on the planet, the Olympic Games.

In order to ease the transport congestion expected to accompany the millions of tourists drawn to the 2020 games, the Japanese government is encouraging businesses to keep their workers at home for the event’s two-week duration.

They’ve already begun practicing.

Telecommuting in Japan has become almost an emergency contingency, with thousands getting accustomed to the idea of giving up their daily commute on the world’s busiest subway system so that the tourists can move more easily from venue to venue. So, is the request a necessary action or are the people of Tokyo being asked to miss out on the color and spectacle of one of the world’s great events without good cause? And will this telecommuting trial convert businesses into believers in remote work?

Training for Telecommuting in Japan

The city of Tokyo has been rehearsing for its Olympic extravaganza for years now. In 2017, more than 900 organizations were asked to discourage their employees from traveling into work and instead make sure workers were properly equipped to telecommute. The practice run was repeated again this year, with more than 80,000 employees from Fujitsu and NEC Corp. alone joining a group of 600,000 professionals nationwide who gave working from home a try.

Even if commuters get overwhelmed or stuck in transit by the sporting masses, Tokyo’s workforce can continue to be productive by using office pods.

The initiative is designed to reduce at least some of the nine million passengers that board the city’s rail system every day–a figure more than double the amount of business the New York City subway does on an average day.

There are also changes in store for those hardy souls that brave the trek and will potentially fight for space with the 40 million tourists expected to visit the country over the The Japanese government is encouraging more workers to telecommutecourse of the Olympic year.

They’ll be greeted by the sight of rows of Telecubes. These phone booth-sized portable offices come packed with 13 square feet of business necessities, including a desk, power outlets, and video conferencing connectivity. Similar video conferencing pods have been installed at U.S. airports, and there, as with Tokyo, the real attraction is the sound-proofed isolation–after all, a wifi-enabled laptop and external webcam are all you really need to work remotely. The point of the Telecubes is, even if commuters get overwhelmed or stuck in transit by the sporting masses, Tokyo’s workforce can continue to be productive.

However, the question remains whether such initiatives will succeed. That’s a two-pronged proposition that will depend on whether telecommuting can reasonably replace onsite work and whether enough people will take up the option to reduce congestion effectively.

What the Data Says About Telecommuting

The first of those two dilemmas is the easiest to answer because it is already proven. Telecommuting is enjoying steady growth across the U.S. More than 3.7 million Americans currently work from home at least half the time, a number that has grown by 115% since early in the millennium.

It is a significant enough population to offer some statistical evidence of remote work productivity and the results are overwhelmingly positive.

Telecommuters are twice as likely to work longer hours than their office-bound colleagues, and they average fewer days of sick leave per year.

A 2018 survey by FlexJobs found: 

  • 65% of respondents said they were more productive working from home
  • 75% reported experiencing fewer distractions
  • 71% said they felt less stressed working from home
  • Work-life balance rated ahead of salary when choosing a new job
  • More than a quarter said they would take a pay cut in exchange for telecommuting options

Things are just as rosy on the employer side of the fence. Global Workplace Analytics data found that a business saves an average of $11,000 a year for every employee that works from home at least half the time. It also found telecommuters were twice as likely to work longer hours than their office-bound colleagues, and that they average fewer days of sick leave per year.

Those statistics suggest that the work ethic Tokyo’s professionals famously prize will not be affected by any temporary, or perhaps long-term, switch to telecommuting. And if the wheels of industry keep turning during the games regardless of where the workforce works, then Tokyo’s telecommuting congestion buster has a chance to succeed.

Although the raw numbers remain stacked against it.

Is Japan’s Telecommuting Plan Feasible?

Telecommuting in Japan is going to have to reach unheard-of levels of saturation if it is going to make a difference in traffic congestion during the Olympic Games. It is estimated that more than 650,000 tourists will ride Tokyo’s subway system during peak daily times. To match that amount of additional cargo, the city is going to have to shed an equal number of professionals from its lines. 

Tokyo's subways are busy in part because few telecommute.Almost six million people work in Tokyo, about 10 percent of the nation’s workforce. Converting 650,000 of them to telecommuting, even over the short term, will require the cooperation of one in ten professionals. Currently, Japan’s population accesses telecommuting, even occasionally, at a rate of about four percent. Games organizers are going to have to more than double the number of employees telecommuting in less than a year for their plan to work–and Japan’s prevailing corporate culture has been historically resistant to diverse forms of employment.   

The Olympic Games may give telecommuting a degree of acceptance among the public once they see it widely used.

It would appear that, for telecommuting in Japan to make a drastic difference to the success of the Games, an unrealistic amount of Olympic spirit will be needed. However, whether or not government-sponsored telecommuting reduces subway congestion, the mass exposure to telecommuting could have a legacy effect. As with the trialing of other new technologies, such as the use of facial recognition cameras at international airports, the Olympic Games may give telecommuting a degree of acceptance among the public once they see it widely used.

While 100,000 newly converted telecommuters may not be enough to ease travel between Olympic sites, it could be the trickle that starts a flood of interest in remote work. Such an adoption could have a huge effect on a population densely located in and around Tokyo. Employees might even begin to prioritize where they live over where they work. It’s possible the 2020 Games may eventually be remembered as the event that started a reverse migration away from the big cities and out into more work-life balance-friendly locales.

Subscribe to VC Daily