The 2020 Olympic games are going to push more than just the athletes to their limits. The host city of Tokyo is going to have to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tourists on a public transport system already carrying the heaviest load of passengers on Earth.
In fact, the Japanese government is hoping to use the Olympics to set a record of its own by attracting more than 40 million tourists to the country in the Olympic year–that’s twice the previous record!
To approach that mark without grinding the city’s transportation systems to a halt, the government is asking the traditionally conservative Tokyo workforce to literally get out of the way. It is asking them to forego their daily trek to the office and, instead, start telecommuting to work.
It may be the largest work-from-home experiment ever undertaken, and, if it proves successful, it could have a profound impact on Japanese business and lifestyle–and the environment.
Telecommuting by the Millions
On July 24 of this summer, three years to the day before the Olympic flame will be officially lit in Tokyo, the city’s workforce stayed at home. More than 900 businesses asked their employees to sleep in, work from home, and give the government’s telecommuting plan a try. And it is quite a dramatic change in work style and lifestyle the government is asking these employees and companies to undertake. Only 4% of Japanese employees currently work regularly from home–by comparison, about 25% of U.S. employees regularly telecommute.
The reaction in Tokyo seems to have been a modest success. Around 60,000 workers took the opportunity to work from home. However, given that 127 million people work in and around Tokyo, many more employees will need to be convinced to give telecommuting a go if it the initiative is going to have any impact on public transit and road congestion.
Tokyo’s public metro system currently carries a world-leading 9 million people to work each day, almost double the cargo of New York’s subway. Those famously cramped trains are going to be unbearable–possibly unusable–once Olympic tourists join the crush.
How Does Video Conferencing Reduce Traffic Congestion?
Those Olympic tourists could number in the millions. Brazil welcomed 500,000 tourists for the duration of the 2016 games and a record high of 6.6 million for the year, while London attracted 2 million for the games alone in 2012.
Although the success of the test run this summer is encouraging, taking 60,000 riders out of the metro system and letting a very conservative estimate of 500,000 tourists replace them isn’t going to work. The government must find a way to encourage more people to telecommute, and having a three-year head start is wise.
The technology shouldn’t be a major hurdle. Webcams for private use–quality HD ones, and even 4K video conferencing cameras–now retail for affordable prices, and there are dozens of reliable companies supplying free and subscription-based video conferencing solutions. Moreover, internet speed won’t be an issue, since Japan has one of the highest overall internet speeds of any country. In 2015, Japan came in sixth in the world for internet speed, well ahead of the U.S., which sits at number 20.
With all the tools there to make the transition to telecommuting easy, perhaps working from home should be marketed as a long-term lifestyle alternative in Japan, rather than just a quirky way to make the Olympic games flow smoothly. It could even be pitched as a potential solution to the nation’s current problems with workplace stress, transport congestion, and a poor environmental track record.
Telecommuting for a Cleaner, Healthier Tokyo
Telecommuting doesn’t have to be universally adopted to bring about positive change. In the U.S., for example, about 3% of the workforce telecommutes half their working lives, and that’s enough to save 3.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year. For a nation like Japan, where current climate change policies have been rated as highly insufficient, getting just 10% of the population regularly telecommuting could have a major environmental impact.
If that same 10% figure is applied to the public transport burden, you’d easily remove 750,000 – 900,000 people from the daily commute–good for the Olympics and good for passengers on overcrowded trains.
Finally, telecommuting could help redress the seeming imbalance in Japan’s work/life equation. More than 20% of the nation’s workforce is at risk of death from overwork, according to government reports. Almost a quarter of employees work 80 hours of overtime each month, leading to serious physical and mental health problems.
Telecommuting can alleviate at least some of that stress by increasing hours spent at home, removing the crushing public commute, and introducing more flexibility. Studies have also shown telecommuters are less likely to suffer from depression, obesity, and substance abuse.
So, while the Japanese government should be praised for embracing telecommuting as a solution to Olympic overcrowding, maybe it should also be using the games as a springboard to begin a workplace revolution. Who knows? By 2020, Tokyo could be a telecommuting leader, driven by a healthier, happier, more environmentally aware workforce.