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Remote work tests S. Korea's corporate hierarchy, culture

Once unthinkable, working from home in high demand by younger workforce that values performance over loyalty

Following last month’s lifting of social distancing rules, most office workers have returned to on-site work. But some companies are continuing their “work from anywhere” experiment for better efficiency and innovation. (Bloomberg)
Following last month’s lifting of social distancing rules, most office workers have returned to on-site work. But some companies are continuing their “work from anywhere” experiment for better efficiency and innovation. (Bloomberg)
Behind South Korea's rapid industrial growth was a military-like corporate culture that united workforces for a shared goal: the company's success and my family‘s well being. The mantra “your company is your family” propelled the tremendous drive toward economic prosperity but also gave validity to tough corporate culture and hierarchy. The decades-old corporate culture, however, is now being forced to change for a new generation of the workforce who finds daily 9-to-6 office hours, frequent company dinners, and a hierarchical communication system unfit and unproductive. Perhaps most importantly, these younger workers don’t see making personal sacrifices for corporate growth to be worth their time.

With employees born after the 1980s and 1990s becoming a major source of corporate growth, Korea‘s once-unthinkable work-from-home experiment sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has prevailed even though virus fears have subdued and have given managers every reason to request their staff to return to the office.

A wide spectrum of businesses -- from digital-first IT firms to conservative manufacturing companies -- are looking at ways to change the way they operate to accommodate employees who no longer find merit in climbing the corporate ladder for the rest of their lives.

Most recently, Naver made an unprecedented decision to give its 4,000 employees the option of working either five days or three days a week from home. Several other Korean businesses are adopting hybrid forms of remote work including allowing their employees to commute to nearby co-working spaces instead of the company headquarters.

“Remote work just makes everything attractive about a company,” a 32-year-old Naver employee surnamed Shin, who has worked for the tech firm for nine years and holds a managerial position, told The Korea Herald on Monday.

“While there are criticisms that remote work hinders performance, I have had no problem with my performance so far,” she added.

When asked whether she was concerned about having her promotion prospects suffer for not having “enough” face-to-face interactions with her boss, Shin replied Naver’s identity as a tech company allows it to be more “performance-based. Remote working has driven its corporate culture further away from the traditional [working culture],“ she explained.

Hyundai Motor Group, a manufacturing giant that has relied on loyal, hardworking employees to power its growth for decades, also decided to allow a hybrid remote work system to continue after social distancing rules were eased. At least 30 percent of its workforce has worked from home since April, compared with the initial 50 percent when the COVID-19 outbreak was at its height. Kim Gyu-won, a 26-year-old who has worked for the nation’s top automaker for almost a year, wants her employer to make the remote work policy permanent.

“It takes about an hour and a half to commute to my office and honestly, it’s grueling,” she said.

“Remote work has allowed me to work with a clearer mind because I get more sleep and live a more balanced life.”

The carmaker has also been toning down the frequency of in-person meetings and its hierarchical office culture, according to Kim.

“We are famous for our late night gatherings, but nowadays, our bosses don’t force us to attend them nor always hold them at dinner time. It’s mostly been replaced with team lunches.”

Another reason that Kim prefers remote work is that she believes it is fundamental for a company to become “performance-based.”

“I think it’s just right for an employee that performs well at work to get promoted, rather than employers considering other factors.”

Of course, not everyone is happy. The changes have received mixed reactions from employees, employers and experts across different generations.

Some are excited about having flexible work hours, while others are concerned that it will hinder productivity and make Korean companies too “performance-based,” thus losing its “family-like” quality.

“I think it’s a great system for working moms and employees who value some personal time after work,” an employee in his 40s at the nation’s top steelmaker Posco said, asking for anonymity.

Posco is among the Korean firms that took a conservative stance against remote working and ended its policy as early as it could, though it exempted immunocompromised employees, pregnant women and others with underlying health conditions from physically returning to office.

“But as a manager, I believe is better to manage and communicate face-to-face with other employees,” the employee added.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup Korea in March last year on 1,204 office workers here aged 25 to 54, 30 percent replied they had remote work experience. Of the 30 percent, 90 percent of the respondents aged 25 to 34 said they were satisfied with the remote working and wanted to continue. On the other hand, those aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 each had only 66 percent that liked the same experience.

Gallup Korea explained that the younger generation prefers remote working because they were more familiar with mobile and technologies that can make the remote working experience smoother.

Hierarchy to exist, but differently

So will the adoption of remote work affect South Korea’s hierarchical corporate culture? The answer is yes, according to several experts here.

“Every company needs its own hierarchy because managing a business ultimately boils down to decision-making,” Lee Young-myon, a business professor at Dongguk University in Seoul said via e-mail.

“But excessive monitoring and micromanaging, which makes up a part of Korea’s corporate hierarchy, is likely to be diminished with remote working,” Lee explained, adding that hierarchy will continue to exist, just in a different form.

On concerns that remote working will lead to a decline in work productivity, and eventually the economy, Lee disagreed.

“Remote working will spread, but it will not lead to a dip in our economy, because it will mean providing the work environment that young Koreans want and when companies get the results they need, then it will become a win-win situation for both employers and employees,” he said.

Kim Tae-gyu, a business professor at Korea University, called remote working an opportunity for companies to forge new paths.

“Employers allowing employees to act on their own based on trust instead of micromanaging is a proven success case in this industry,” Kim said in one his recent blog posts.

“I hope Korean businesses will use this as an opportunity to review their trust with employees and make this as a chance to grow.”

Meanwhile, some experts pointed out that forcing remote work upon its employees in an “unprepared environment” will only increase stress for them, giving employers a new task to solve.

“The technology urgently introduced due to the COVID-19 environment is expected to increase so-called technostress,” Noh Hye-young, a business professor at Gachon University said in a recent report.

“We were able to confirm that the smart work introduced to improve performance was causing technostress, and technostress had a negative impact on work productivity.”

(mkjung@heraldcorp.com)

Intern reporter Lee Seung-ku contributed to this article. -- Ed.
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