The Korea Herald


[Weekender] Back to normal?: ‘It will never be the same’

Koreans have mixed feelings over going back to the office as many tasted the pleasure of relaxed mornings, hoesik-free evenings. And companies know, too.

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : April 14, 2022 - 17:50

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Illustration by Park Ji-young Illustration by Park Ji-young
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a source of suffering for all, but it has offered an unexpected opportunity too -- to experience what relaxed mornings are like on weekdays. Without having to take that subway from hell while suppressing a hangover from the company dinner the night before, not to mention the shirt-ironing and face-to-face meetings, many workers in South Korea -- known as one of the hardest working countries in the world -- spent more than two years free from fitting themselves into an established corporate code.

But under the eased social distancing rules and in preparation for the eventual cessation of the pandemic, companies are now in the process of ending remote working. And Koreans have mixed feelings about it -- some are happy that they are returning to normalcy, but some others are hoping that the work-at-home practices stay the same, or partially at least, even after the pandemic ends.

“Remote working has given me relaxed mornings and more time to enjoy life after work,” Shin Ji-soo, an employee at WeWork Korea told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

“The company already lets us work at the nearest WeWork office near our home as part of remote working. But it would be nice to work-from-home at least twice a week even if the pandemic ends,” she added.

Shin is among many employees here that hope their employers maintain at least some of their work-from-home policy. The adoption of hybrid remote working has become a major subject of contemplation for businesses, as securing the quality of workplaces has become a priority for the management to consider in employee satisfaction.

Tech firms such as Naver and Kakao are reportedly mulling a mix of remote and office work, with their employees telling the companies they prefer working from home. According to a recent survey conducted by Naver of its 4,795 employees here, 52.2 percent of the respondents said they preferred hybrid remote working where they could work sometimes at home, while 41.7 percent said they preferred permanent remote work 5 days a week. Only 2.1 percent responded they prefer working in the office.

Major conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor are maintaining remote working for at least 50 percent of their workforce, but has relaxed guidelines for face-to-face meetings and business trips.

Samsung Electronics on Monday internally announced its new guidelines which fully granted their employees permission to go on business trips home and abroad. Company gatherings such as lunches and after-hour dinners are allowed as long as the group does not exceed 10 people. For larger gatherings, up to 300 employees are allowed.

However, employees have to continue wearing masks indoors.

Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors have also eased policies on business trips and gatherings. They no longer require employees to get vaccinated before business trips.

Telecommunication giant SK Telecom, has recently adopted a hybrid remote working policy similar to WeWork that allows its employees to work at a separate office space called Sphere in western Seoul, rather than commuting to its headquarters located in central Seoul. An SK Telecom official said that the new office space was popular among employees and provided an environment where they can relax, but boost productivity at the same time.

Like SK Telecom, steelmaking giant Posco adopted a policy where its employees can work from the nearest office branch from home rather than commuting to its headquarters in southern Seoul. Though it was the first major company here to end its remote working policy last week, it has also adopted flexible working hours and exempted pregnant women, immunocompromised employees and those with other underlying health conditions from working in the office.

With companies now at the stage of deciding where to draw the line between working at home and the office, experts say that adopting hybrid remote working would be beneficial for business, but new performance evaluation standards would have to be implemented as well.

“The hybrid form of remote working would be beneficial for businesses as they can kill two birds with one stone - it would provide a more satisfactory work environment for its employees while improving productivity,” Yoon In-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University said.

On coming up with new performance evaluation standards in line with hybrid working, Lim Woon-taek, a sociology professor at Keimyung University called for companies to invest in systems that allow employers and team leaders to clearly see the results of the employees’ work at every stage.

“For remote working to be actively adopted, such a system needs to be invented to make projects to run smoothly,” he explained.

Whether companies are ready or not, remote working is likely to become a yardstick for how businesses attract employees.

According to a survey conducted by job search website operator Incruit released earlier this week, 62 percent of the respondents said they would consider a company’s remote working policy when they join one.

A separate Incruit survey released last week on 1,013 office workers in Korea showed that 78 percent of the respondents felt that after-hours dinners -- which often last for hours and are criticized as a major stress-inducing office tradition in Korea -- had “changed” after the COVID outbreak here. Some 62 percent said that they preferred the shortened after-hours dinners, while 31 percent responded they liked how companies now held such meetings at lunch.

“Employees having more choices on how they work, such as remote working, is also an example of a flexible labor market,” Yonsei University economics professor Sung Tae-yoon said.

“It’s not just lay-offs and hiring that affect flexibility, and I believe that the market will eventually adopt more hybrid forms of labor to adapt.”

South Korea is quickly easing its quarantine rules to gain normalcy, as it has recently been seeing a drop in COVID cases. Its new virus cases fell below 200,000 on Wednesday, continuing the downward trend after the March 17 peak of more than 620,000 when the omicron wave had gripped the country.