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[Anniversary Special] Out of sight, out of mind?

Korea faces a new era of working from home

For Lee Ji-min (not her real name), a 32-year-old employee at a South Korean gaming company, the shift to working remotely offers clear benefits: no grueling commute and a distraction-free work environment at home.

Lee is one of many Korean workers who have switched from office-based work to working from home due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.

Although not all Korean companies allow employees to fully work from home, the number of those working remotely has soared as the country has yet to be free of the coronavirus threat.

Even though the shift to a home-based work culture was forced on them by the pandemic, the majority of Korean workers seem to welcome the change, saying the benefits outweigh the costs. According to a survey by Embrain Public, 82.9 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with remote work.

Korean organizational culture had long centered on a close-knit network, with the strict hierarchy from boss to midlevel managers to newbies firmly established. Close interaction, often to the extent of unwarranted intrusions on privacy, was the norm and watercooler moments mattered as a way of strengthening bonds in the workplace. Long hours in the office and visibility were crucial, particularly for micromanagers.

Working remotely breaks down many of those outdated corporate conventions in favor of efficiency and work-life balance, not to mention a higher level of safety in the face of COVID-19.

But old habits die hard, as many Korean managers frown upon working outside the office. Remote workers cannot use “nunchi” -- the time-honored social skill of gauging a situation and other people’s moods -- on online chat rooms or conference calls, where nonverbal cues are hard to detect.

“At home, I am working as hard as I do in the office, but there is still a lingering perception among senior managers that working remotely is not productive,” said Lee. “So I’m under pressure to respond as quickly as possible to my manager’s message or call.”

Technology is another key factor that changes the overall benefits of remote work. Korean employees who work for the local offices of major foreign tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Intel are well prepared to work remotely as the companies provide excellent technical support, efficient and secure communications tools, and systematic ways to embrace the best of remote and office-based work.

A number of Korean companies, in contrast, cannot afford to invest in such technological infrastructure for remote work, much less earmark budgets for extra hardware to be used at home.

Old laptops or desktops, coupled with slow Wi-Fi networks at home, can make working from home extremely frustrating -- for example, an abruptly-cut-off Zoom video call with clients -- and thereby counteract many of the perks of remote work.

An employee at a local insurance firm who asked to be identified as Choi Hye-young said she enjoys the benefits of remote work: no commuting, lower costs for clothing and cosmetics, and less interpersonal stress.

But Choi said remote work also comes with disadvantages. There are inherent limitations in communication via messenger services and mobile phones. Individual workers, including Choi, have to bear the costs of working remotely, paying their own broadband, electricity and mobile phone bills.

Hardware-bound productivity is also a problem. “I use dual monitors and a desktop computer in the office, which is more effective for my work, while I use a laptop at home. There might be a company that offers extra money for new hardware for home use, but mine doesn’t,” she said.

Experts said most people who work from home during the pandemic want to continue doing so. But it remains unclear whether Korean companies, which have allowed for full or limited working from home due to the COVID-19 crisis, will continue to do so post-pandemic. What’s clear, though, is that while remote working has been hailed as a step forward in work-life balance, Korean employees are keen to enhance productivity when they work from home.


Byun Hye-jin (hyejin2@heraldcorp.com) contributed to the reporting. -- Ed.

On Aug. 15, 2021, The Korea Herald celebrates its 68th anniversary as South Korea’s No. 1 English-language daily. To mark the day in a time of pandemic and turmoil, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of stories on the challenges that we face and the prognosis for life with, or after COVID-19. -- Ed.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)
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