A New Japan

Rethinking Work

Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan has lost a significant proportion of its power generation capacity.   Not only is the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant out of commission, but numerous reactors are also off-line due either to damage sustained during the tremor or to shutdowns resulting from heightened concerns about the safety of atomic electricity. The Kanto plain, where around 35 million Japanese live in a mega-metropolis centered on Tokyo, and perhaps other regions of the country, will face power shortages in the summer as higher temperatures increase air conditioning-induced energy demand.

Consequently, the government and industry have taken commendable measures to lower energy consumption. These include shutting off some escalators and elevators, reducing the number of trains on some lines, and dimming lighting. But the most noticeable change for many has been an increase in the thermostat settings of office buildings and government offices. Since Japan is already under-air conditioned in normal circumstances, temperatures (to which must be added the humidity) now guarantee that the productivity of the salarymen and salarywomen in Tokyo can only plummet. Yet, it seems that to some commentators, the success of 'setsu-den' (saving-electricity) is being defined by the suffering inflected on the population. The more they sweat, the greater the victory for the sake of setsu-den.   

In addition, several businesses will give their workers a day off during the week in exchange for working during the weekend. This could help lower peak electricity demand, which is the key to avoiding power outages. Unfortunately, this might end up creating additional problems. Child care centres will have to adjust if parents have to work on weekend. Moreover, for industrial networks based on just-in-time deliveries, temporary weekday stoppages may also make supply-chain management extremely difficult, while train schedules will need to be altered to take into account higher weekend travel.
Interestingly, one obvious solution has, it seems, been mostly overlooked. Tokyo is a white collar city. One creative option would therefore be to close down half of the floors in office towers, thus cutting down radically on air conditioning and lighting. Employees could telecommute two or three days a week, making it possible also to cut down on the number of commuter trains. It might increase home air conditioning demand, but the small individual houses and buildings where many Kanto plain residents live have windows that could make it easier to rely on a fan and some limited air conditioning than in their downtown glass and steel places of employment. Some could also adjust their schedule to wake up much earlier, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures (and daylight) to save energy.
Obviously there are employees who might not be able to take advantage of this option for one reason or another (too many family members at home, work that requires them to be physically in the office, lack of space at home, etc). But with the availability of high-speed Internet, free Skype video conferencing and other tools, it's possible a large number of white collar private and public sector staffers could actually be as efficient – in fact probably more efficient – by working from home three days a week.   
Should this experienment turn out also to demonstrate the possibilities of massive telecommuting, it would be one of the greatest breakthroughs in management since the 'invention' of the large bureaucratic corporation in the late 19th century. The cost savings could be enormous, while the time savings from avoiding long commutes would make it far easier for working couples to balance their professional lives with their family obligations, possibly contributing a much-needed higher fertility rate in countries such as Japan.   
Rather than measuring success by how uncomfortable workplaces are – and perhaps soon by tallying the number of heat stroke fatalities in these buildings – the energy shortage of summer 2011 offers an amazing opportunity for Japan to revolutionalize the way we work.