Japan quake: Technology lifeline for businesses

Sun over Ishinomaki
Image caption Rising sun: Helping businesses to keep going, as the country tries to deal with the devastating quake, is vital for long-term recovery

Japan has escaped the worst, so far, of one type of meltdown.

But the disruption, the economic pandemonium caused by disasters, panic and threats of rolling powercuts, has hit business hard, threatening another type of crisis.

The multiplicity of calamities couldn't have come at a worst time for business in Japan, when most firms were preparing for the new financial year.

A total of 1,135 listed companies were forced to suspend their operations or suffered other setbacks following the disaster on March 11, according to the Tokyo Shoko Research Co.

Now Japan Inc faces the prospect of fleeing investors, thanks to fears over the Fukushima reactors, and rolling powercuts that will hamper industries, particularly in the summer when demand for electricity will peak in Tokyo.

TEPCO, the utilities giant that supplies 23m customers around Tokyo, was relying heavily on those now decommissioned reactors. Come summer the capital will be experiencing a business meltdown of its own.

Trading through the troubles

But there is a silver lining.

Owing to threats of further disruption, Japan's conservative business culture has started to think creatively about how new technologies might ease its pain.

Image caption The quake and tsunami claimed the lives of over 13,000 people with over 15,133 still missing

This is quite a shift from traditional Japanese business practices.

Despite the country's perceived "tech savviness", technologies that have increased productivity and efficiency in the office elsewhere on the planet have been shunned in Japan.

Official figures show that Japanese workers are 40% less efficient than in the United States. Even the French are more productive.

But given a massive jolt by the earthquake and its knock-on effects, Japanese businesses are now considering previously unthinkable measures such as telecommuting.

Japan's biggest telecoms firm NTT has seen a big jump in demand for its work-at-home support service, which has seen a five-fold increase in enquiries since the quake struck.

"Demand for remote-access tools was limited before as most workers found it easy to get to the office and work there. There were also concerns about security," explains a NTT spokeswoman.

"Post-quake that has all changed with companies keen to equip employees with these tools because of commuting problems, power blackouts and the need to care for school-less evacuated children."

Home working

Telework support services allows employees to connect to their company's computer system at home, securely accept e-mails sent to a company address or use the company's software on their own PCs.

Image caption NTT, Japan's biggest telecoms company, has seen demand soar for its work-at-home support service

Virtual conferences are also a possibility via the internet.

All very unusual business practices for a country where until recently, bosses rarely let their workers use company laptops out of the office.

Nor should remote access be a problem, because the quake did little to disrupt network communication through the internet.

Any major impact on international communication services was avoided by using other routes to bypass damaged submarine cables connecting Japan with the rest of the world.

Japan also boasts some of the fastest and cheapest fibre optic networks, which helps home working.

Terrie Lloyd, who runs systems integration and incubation firm LINC Media in Tokyo, says that technology helped him in the aftermath of the quake. He decided to let some of his 40 employees work from home.

"Japan has excellent WAN [wide area network] infrastructure, and so we have noticed no real impact other than lack of physical presence," he says.

"We had a number of foreign staff and a couple of Japanese staff start to work remotely. Our data centre and engineers of course have to stay local, but managers and remote support staff were able to relocate."

'Work revolution'

Other companies too are embracing such telecommuting technology.

Japan's troubles could even lead to a work revolution, says Mariko Fujiwara, a director of market research firm Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in Tokyo, with more companies offering telework to get around problems caused by the crisis.

She says now that homes have 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 centre to connect to everywhere. Japan is ready for this as communication prices here have gone down to the lowest in the developed world.

"Security issues concerning working outside the office are almost solved thanks to cloud computing, but the key is making it cheap for companies to enable this technology in its employees' home and for the road."

Prices are now reasonable enough. According to NTT its work-at-home system costs companies just over 3,000 yen (£22) per employee per month.

Terrie Lloyd agrees that cloud computing - in which users have remote access to centrally-provided computer services - will enable many more firms to switch their white collar workers to home working.

"We started moving our apps into the cloud about three months ago, and have done away with many of our servers.

"As a result, we had almost no downtime after the earthquake. In particular we're using Microsoft e-mail in the cloud, which looks and feels local but doesn't have the same risks."

Monitoring danger

Technology is also coming to the rescue of many a desk warrior in anxiety-filled Tokyo, helping keeping them safe so they can do their job.

Image caption Yurekuru is an app that sends a warning when an earthquake is detected

Japan's ubiquitous and feature-packed "keitai", or mobile phones, have come in handy for beleaguered salarymen and salarywomen.

All Japanese 3G phones, by law, come with a quake warning app that is linked with Japan's seismology institute.

Any signs of a potential large quake detected in its early moments is beamed to phones in the area, giving workers a clue as to when to duck under the safety of a desk.

Early warning signs, "P waves" from the start of each earthquake, are picked up by the institute which then beams the warning to Japanese phones and even the iPhone with a special app.

Advanced warnings vary from from a few seconds to up to a minute.

Others services such as Skype helped business to survive when phones were down in the first 24 hours following the massive tremor.

"We also used Skype on our iPhones to get through to family and friends when we the main telephone lines went down," says Charles Spreckley of Five by Fifty, a Tokyo-based consumer research agency.

"I think we were all glued to our phones for about a week after the quake in fact. One of my staff used her GPS phone to find her way home when she had to walk half way across the city that Friday night the big one struck."

Japanese businesses, particularly in the Kanto region, will be suffering right now. But with new tools to aid them, the next few months might not be as bleak as some are predicting.

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