Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: korea

Greetings from Seoul, where I’m researching four-day weeks in Asian companies

I’m in Seoul for the next several days, doing some publicity stuff for REST (my dad tells me that the translation is really top-notch), and also doing some interviews and fieldwork for my next book on four-day weeks.

One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions of the four-day week is that most of the discussion centers around companies in Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (whoever Perpetual Guardian hired to do their PR, they really delivered value for money!). Likewise, the policy discussions mainly cite European trade unions and talking heads.

One of the things I’ve found in my research, though, is that some of the biggest companies shortening their workdays and workweeks are in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I’ve found big tech companies doing 30-hour weeks, little ryokans (traditional inns) operating on a 4-day week schedule, and a big manufacturing company that switches to 4-day weeks during the summer.

Likewise in Korea, there are a whole host of hip tech startups, cosmetics companies, and publishers that have shortened their working hours. (Tech and cosmetics are big industries in Korea, and people still read a lot here.)

Coming over here to see how they do it feels important, for a couple reasons.

First, I really think I’m tracking a global movement that is in its infancy, doesn’t really have a strong collective sense of itself, but in the next few years could become a really serious thing. And because of the size and number of companies, you can’t study this without studying Japan and Korea. The world’s biggest company that does 30-hour weeks is in Japan, and some of the most successful startups working shorter hours are in Korea. Talking about European companies is a good start, but it’s not the end.

Second, for American audiences, when you talk about companies in Sweden and Netherlands, this is what they imagine:

When nations that have powerful unions, strong social welfare, and a words for “cozy evenings by the fire wearing hand-knit socks” opt for working less, it’s both totally unsurprising, and remote. It’s hard for American companies to imagine following the Nordic model in… just about anything. However, when you talk about it being done by companies that are in countries whose languages have words for “working yourself to death,” those same audiences are more likely to sit up and take notice.

Third, while of course there are some serious differences in corporate and national cultures, Japanese and Korean companies are adopting shorter workweeks for pretty much the same reasons that their counterparts in London and Copenhagen are; they do the same things to make them work; and they see the same benefits. So I can make the case that shortening the workweek, for all its variations by nation and industry, follows some underlying rules no matter where you are. (Rules that, needless to say, I’ll lay out in my book!)

Finally, because of geographical and cultural proximity, China is more likely to learn from the Korean and Japanese companies than from companies in the West. There’s already some discussion in China of aiming for a 4-day week by 2030; and if they do, that’ll be a titanic move in the global economy, not to mention a huge change in the lives of a billion-plus people.

So that’s why I’m here. To get this part of the story. Of course, I’m also here for the street food!

Shortening working hours and unintended consequences:

Koreans have had some of the longest working hours in the developed world: longer than the workaholic United States, Europe, and even Japan (which is often Korea’s benchmark in economic and business matters). While this solid work ethic has been important for the country’s economic growth, it’s had its downsides, and for years advocates have argued that limiting working hours would improve productivity, family life, and quality of life.

Long hours can also enable bad behavior among bosses. As a recent New York Times article explains,

South Koreans often suffer from a work culture they call gapjil. This word describes the imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims.

The most famous example is the “nut rage” incident, in which the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air threw a tantrum over how she was served nuts on a flight.

Recently the government acted to rein in working hours, passing a law that went into effect on July 1 that shortens the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours. The aim was to boost productivity and expand employment. President Moon Jae-in pointed to studies showing that

labor productivity [would rise] with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. During his campaign, he pledged to create 500,000 new jobs by enforcing a 52-hour workweek.

But as this Guardian article explains, the way the government has gone about doing it is having some unfortunate unintended consequences.

For their part, white-collar and office workers

have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work.

Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.

I’ve heard from junior people at companies like Samsung and LG that “you don’t leave until the boss leaves, and the boss never leaves,” and that the long hours don’t translate into more work, but rather higher rates of presenteeism. When you know you’re going to be at the office until 9 for no particularly good reason, you’re more likely to engage in what Frederick Winslow Taylor referred to as “soldiering.”

But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.

Something like a third of Korean workers labor in jobs with irregular hours, and the new limits– and threats of jail terms for employers who violate them– have led to substantial cuts in pay for these workers.

As a result, lots of them are taking second or even third jobs to make up the loss of wages.

[W]orking-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”

About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers.

It’s not clear that if this was something that the government just didn’t anticipate, or what; but it sounds like a real problem is unfolding, and it illustrates how policies meant to shorten working hours and improving the lives of workers need to pay close attention to their effects on both salaried and hourly workers, and not overlook irregular workers.

Companies trying to work with these policies maybe haven’t always thought through the implementation very carefully. Indeed, the head of the German-Korean Chamber of Commerce recently warned that this could hurt exports. Not to put too much faith in national stereotypes, but when you have a German technocrat warning that you’re being too inflexible, you might have a problem.

Less dramatically, perhaps, the new law has also cost restaurants and benefitted grocery stores, as more people are able to go home and cook:

South Korean workers are leaving their offices and factories earlier thanks to a mandated shorter workweek, which seems to be bad news for restaurants and bars….

Supermarkets and online grocers, on the other hand, have benefited from workers spending more time at home. “We do not have exact numbers yet, but sales of fresh foods like fish and meat are rising,” said a Lotte Group executive. Demand has grown now that people are going home earlier than before and making their own dinners.

E-commerce website operator eBay Gmarket reports that for the July 1-9 period, sales of imported meat jumped 88% on the year and kimchi rose 36%. Sales of coupons for restaurants, meanwhile, dropped 25%.

“There has been no change in daytime customers, but a big drop-off at night,” said the 50-year-old owner of a shop that sells food from South Jeolla Province. July sales so far have plunged 20% to 30% on the year. “I am thinking of installing a ticket machine for orders to reduce staff,” he added.

Working hours in South Korea are coming down

The Guardian reports that the South Korean government has voted to cut back the ‘inhumanely long’ 68-hour working week:

Employees in one of the most overworked countries in Asia are about to get a break after South Korea passed a bill to reduce the typical work week in an effort to improve quality of life and boost employment.

South Korea’s National Assembly overwhelmingly passed the law which cut the maximum weekly work hours to 52, down from 68. The law comes into force in July and will apply to large companies before being rolled out to smaller businesses.

The thing is, Korea’s productivity is not as high as countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which work far shorter hours– which suggests that those working hours are not well-spent.

Nap cafes in Korea

So apparently nap cafes are now a thing in Korea.

Mr. Healing, a “healing” cafe franchise, has opened 47 branches in just two years. Three more are set to open by early May.

“The customers vary from people who come alone to couples, friends, families, travellers — simply anyone who needs a break in their life,” said Park Hye-sun, manager of Mr. Healing in Myeong-dong, central Seoul.

The coffee store devotes half of its 115-square-meter space to a healing room. Customers who purchase beverages can nestle in big massage chairs and relax for up to 50 minutes.

Within Korea, it’s part of something called the “fast healing” movement (which sounds largely like a marketing term), but it’s getting exported. According to the Hindustan Times, Koreans are on the leading edge of a cultural trend across Asia (as they so often are), and in Tokyo and London there are pop-up nap cafes (one was cosponsored by food giant Nestlé and bedding company Caspar).

Even Korean movie theaters are getting into the business:

CGV, Korea’s biggest cinema chain, has also jumped on the bandwagon. In March, the chain began offering a siesta service. During lunchtime, customers can lay on a fully reclining chair in its premium theaters listening to the sounds of nature, with a cup of tea and blanket.

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