TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan on Monday launched a scheme to promote "telework", or working from home, in an effort to ease congestion when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics, as well as soften a notoriously rigid work culture.
Almost 930 companies, including Suntory Holdings [SUNTH.UL], Ajinomoto Co <2802.T>, and Tokyu Construction Co <1720.T> are participating in "Telework Day," to be held on July 24 each year from now until the Olympics opening ceremony set for July 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has introduced policies to shorten working hours, raise contract workers' pay, and curb abuse of labor laws. Telework could be another way to reform working practices that some say are behind the times.
"Once the Olympics start it will be hard to get to work, so we are doing this as an experiment," said Takashi Kozu, 61, president of the Ricoh Institute of Sustainability and Business.
"The lifestyles of younger generations are changing, so firms should offer alternative work styles to maintain employees' incentive."
Kozu said he worked from home on Monday morning, planned to attend an off-site meeting in the afternoon and would not show up in the office until early evening.
Telework is more common in other countries, especially in the information technology sector, where employees regularly use teleconferencing or log on from the neighborhood cafe.
But it has been slow to catch on in other industries in Japan, partly because firms have put a lot of emphasis on being physically present at the office, often for 12 hours or more.
But Japan, Inc. is starting to change its ways and introduce more flexible work hours. As the population ages, the labor force is shrinking at an alarming rate, and a hard-driving work culture makes it difficult to attract and retain workers.
Some companies are starting to realize that long, inflexible hours of work actually keep labor productivity low.
In some cases Japan's working culture can be fatal, and it is not uncommon for workers to commit suicide or suffer a stroke because of excessive hours.
"We are doing this for the Olympics, but the long-term goal is to have more humane working conditions," said Hiroshi Ohnishi, a planner at the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which is promoting "Telework Day."
"In the past, working long hours was considered a virtue, but this thinking will not hold up in the future."
(This story corrects company name in second paragraph to "Suntory Holdings" from "Suntory Beverage & Food Ltd")
(Reporting by Stanley White; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)