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Executives in Japan find salvation in Teleworking

On behalf of its long-suffering workers, the Japanese government champions telecommuting, hoping a radical change to the nation's work practices will end its notoriously inefficient work culture. Policymakers even think a little more time at home might lead to an increased birthrate, something Tokyo feels needs to be addressed immediately.

"The only warmth in my life is the heated toilet seat." So goes the ditty entered in a recent poetry contest aimed at giving expression to Japan's downtrodden corporate samurai.

Fortunately, salvation may be on its way, thanks to the same aptitude for finding technological solutions to problems -- such as a cold bottom -- that our forlorn poet finds such comfort in.

On behalf of its long-suffering workers, the Japanese government champions telecommuting, hoping a radical change to the nation's work practices will end its notoriously inefficient work culture. Policymakers even think a little more time at home might lead to an increased birthrate, something Tokyo feels needs to be addressed immediately. The long hours the Japanese put in at the office has stopped them having sex -- well, at least with their partners -- say some reports.

As part of its scheme to double by 2010 the number of telecommuters -- estimated at about 6.74 million in 2005, or about 20 percent of the working population -- the government has just completed a project to make Japan's already lightning-speed internet 10 times faster. It will launch this month and make passing data back and forth a matter of nanoseconds.

However this next-generation internet may be lost on Japan's older generation of corporate bruisers, some of whom still do not know how to operate a PC, or even type.

"That's what my secretaries are for," one senior manager says.

Younger employees, whose priorities are more in tune with the West's version of what life is for -- family, fun and friends -- are wildly embracing the changes.

All that prevents more companies offering telework is the cost, said Mariko Fujiwara, research director of Tokyo's Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.

She said if homes are given access to cheap, fast networks they will become a perfect nexus for work.

"Home will be much more than just home, it will become the center to connect to everywhere. Japan is ready for this as communication prices here are the lowest in the developed world," she said. "Security issues concerning working outside the office are almost solved but the key is making it cheap for companies to enable this technology in their employees' homes and for the road."

The Japanese government has just started offering tax breaks to companies who want to start teleworking schemes.

The latest big business to take advantage of such government help is Matsushita, the Japanese firm best known for its Panasonic brand, which began a telework program for nearly half of its 76,000 employees last month.

Its workers must have thought the announcement an April Fool's joke. Would they really be allowed to forgo their average 90-minute commute in trains at 400 percent capacity and the calisthenics workout they have to complete each morning en masse?

Company spokesman Akira Kadota said the scheme was no jest and expected the company's very own technology to be help ease the transition.

"The company will loan out computers and cameras to its workforce for online conferences. We are also fortunate in that Matsushita has done of lot of work in the networked home field and we intend to take full advantage of that expertise," Kadota said.

He said that security issues had held the company back from embracing teleworking before but new technologies such as biometrics and secure networks have at last made telecommuting a reality.

Meanwhile, another electronics behemoth with plenty of experience in Japan is experimenting with different technologies to enable teleworking. Numbers vary from department to department, but roughly 30 percent of IBM Japan workers telecommute one or two days a week in a scheme that started in 2001.

With two small children and aging parents to care for, 39-year-old Masako Shimooka leapt at the chance to spend more time at home and signed up as an IBM teleworker six years ago. Once the children are in bed or at school she whisks out her laptop to catch up with work or chat to colleagues via instant messaging or video teleconferencing though a fast wireless link and her Webcam.

"I used to overdo it a bit to prove I wasn't a slacker who was idling away hours at home. But now I'm more relaxed with the system and it feels perfectly natural to use online chat to communicate with the office," she said. "I can access documents online and have cable internet access at home, so there are no speed issues. There are times when I must be at the office but often it's so much like being in a `virtual' office that colleagues don't realize I'm at home when I chat over the net with them."

As a public relations manager, Shimooka says she has little need for road warrior gadgets, but for IBM's sales team, PDAs and super-smart mobile phones are must-haves. And, as Japan's mobiles shrink ever smaller while loading up tool after tool, many people are ditching their laptops altogether.

Third-generation mobile phones that some western laptop-lugging executives would gladly digitize their souls for are already here in Japan, where, incidentally they have been merrily e-mailing and surfing the web on mobiles years before the BlackBerry hit the UK and US. In fact, so far ahead are the Japanese in mobile technology that news of the soon-to-be-launched and much-hyped Apple iPhone produces ennui here. Some are even unkind enough to point out that Apple's new baby is a tad undeveloped: a mere second-generation phone. Japan has been third-generation (3G) for four years now.

In Japan, if you want GPS, high-definition video, internet, video conferencing, an electronic credit card and tough security, you can get it all in one mobile. In fact these smartphones have become so essential that they have slowed the national walking pace, as people peer into their hand-held lovelies to check e-mail, surf the net and generally see if they still matter.

Using Japan's superior 3G network the telecommuter can make mobile video calls and shoot bucketsful of data to the office and back in seconds. Japanese mobile operators deal solely with customers on a subscriber basis and subsidize videophones, which normally would be prohibitively expensive.

Bolted-on GPS, for example, means that everyone knows where you are. So bosses are happy to know you are not bunking off for the afternoon at the local shopping mall.

Perhaps the best place to see Japan's unique mobiles in action is downtown Shibuya, Tokyo's youth mecca and entertainment center, famous for its wacky fashions and inspiring the look of the film Blade Runner.

Mobile Internet ad agency Tsutaya claims the crossing in front of the station here has the highest mobile phone density in the world.

Informantion-technology worker Fumi Takagawa is there for a spot of shopping. But at the same time this teleworking freelancer is in contact with her clients though her mobile.

She yanks out her cellphone: "I can pick and chose the functions I want. Of course e-mail and voice are important when working on a project but I find that all the other services the phone has can help me with my work."

Takagawa uses her smartphone to make hotel reservations, pay for goods, shop online and work on spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

"This gadget is my life," she says. "I'd be totally lost without it and probably stuck in a tiny office somewhere tied to a PC."

Source: Taipei Times

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