I’m calling it. Remote working just doesn’t work in South Korea.
I’m a month into my remote working journey. I’m surprised, confused, proud and exhausted that I’ve made it this far.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, I have largely avoided working from home. I have had an odd couple of days at home here and a few half-day in-person meetings there. But mostly, it has been me at a desk in an office with endless supplies of sugary snacks and shit coffee.
South Korea has not made working from home a mandatory thing over the last two years. We are now in our fourth wave of the pandemic, and social distancing restrictions are the toughest they have ever been. So tough that the Level 4 social distancing rules have a policy stating that gym-goers must ‘maintain a treadmill speed of 6km/hr or slower, replacing high-intensity aerobic exercise with low-intensity aerobic exercise’. That is an actual rule. Mandated by the government. Sure, you can work in an office and eat in restaurants until 10 pm, but don’t you dare run too fast around people?
There have been guidelines and ‘suggestions’ for keeping office capacity at a certain level… Buuut most companies are keeping their workers indoors. In offices. On subways. In restaurants, during lunchtime peaks. It’s preposterous. I am a Melburnian, and although I didn’t struggle through 2 years of lockdowns like my friends and family, reading the Korean social distancing guidelines actually makes me feel embarrassed.
The startup I work for is working entirely remotely. It’s not going well.
When I moved to my new company a month ago, I attended my orientation online. They shipped a laptop out and said “good luck”. Well, they implied it anyway. I had seen people do this on LinkedIn. I knew it was a thing that happened a lot last year but experiencing it for myself, ugh. I had a 9:30 am meeting to get introduced and then that was it. No email from my new boss. No mention of what I’d be doing or who I’d be working with. Just. You know… have a good day!? Yeah, cheers.
So what does working from home do for the Korean population? Ah, why it gives us more time to work of course. No commute? No worries! Just add on 2, 3 maybe 4 extra hours to your workday! You’re not commuting anymore so you have more energy to work!? You’re at home so work during your lunch break!
Behind Colombia and Mexico, South Korea have the longest working hours in the developed world. On average in 2020, South Koreans worked a total of 1,908 hours in a year. Back home in Australia, my homeland, people work 1,683 hours per year. If I lived in Australia, I could have an extra 200 odd extra hours in my year to sleep or eat a proper meal or actually complete the projects I start in my spare time.
While nobody in my company is forcing me to work overtime, the overwhelming majority of the staff in Korea are sending emails and slack messages at all hours of the day. Our teams in other global offices are also largely working remotely, but they are not replying to our emails and messages at ungodly hours of the evening.
So, the only conclusion that I can draw is…. working from home just doesn’t work here in Korea.
Staff are always going to feel pressure to work long hours no matter how they are working. It is the nature, the heartbeat of this nation. As I said, we are not being forced to work longer hours. It just sort of happens. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I clock out on time every day. I have way too many failed hobbies and sources of joy outside of my work to waste my life working overtime.
An emergency that requires immediate action? Overtime work, sure. A deadline that I have to meet or other people are affected? Overtime? Yes, I’ll do it. But normal Monday evening on a summer’s day with no obvious mishaps or deadlines? Overtime? Absolutely-fucking-not. I mean, *priceless*.
All I can say is, man, I really hope nobody from my company reads this.
Good luck out there people, and don’t let work get you down. Take care of yourselves, your brain does wonderful things when it’s fed and rested.