After a Disaster, Japan Looks for Alternatives to the Office

Courtesy Sococo

Sococo's Team Space software helps office workers collaborate virtually.

Think your boss is stubborn about letting you work from home? Try going to Japan.

Telecommuting is simply not built into the business culture there. Just 12 percent of Internet-connected Japanese office workers would conduct business from home if their employer offered it, according to a study published this year by market research firm Ipsos. But after last year’s devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami — which caused an estimated  25 trillion yen ($303 billion) in damages — companies there are placing a new urgency on installing the technical infrastructure needed for working remotely when daily visits to the office are impossible.

As part of this effort, Japan Business Computer, which sells services to corporate information-technology departments, has tapped Silicon Valley’s Sococo to equip some of the nation’s companies with telecommuting tools, the companies plan to announce today. The Japanese enterprise-services company is part of JBCC Holdings, a group with 89 billion yen ($1.1 billion) in annual revenue.

“The earthquake accelerated our thinking,” Kunihiro Urano, the senior executive officer for solution and service at the company’s IGuazu division, said in an interview. “It’s not just for the earthquake, but business requires us to work in a distributed manner.”

JBCC will begin deploying Sococo’s software to its employees, and it plans to add another 3,000 users by selling to some of its 400 Japanese corporate customers, Urano said. Sococo’s program, called Team Space, displays a virtual office floor with employees represented as colorful cartoon heads situated at desks in various rooms. Visual cues show when colleagues are busy concentrating on their work or in meetings — either on conference calls or video chats.

Sococo executives declined to comment on terms of the deal or the startup’s revenue. The company, based in Mountain View, California, has about 55 employees.

Paul Brody, chief technology officer of Sococo, said the software can be especially useful for larger organizations.

“As companies grow up, employees don’t have the luxury of being centrally located,” said Brody, who co-founded Sococo in 2007. “We have employees in five states now. We have small satellite offices in Eugene, Oregon, and in Iowa.”

Japan could be a big growth market for companies such as Sococo if the government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has its way. The department is pushing to have at least 7 million of the country’s 128 million residents working from home by 2015.

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