Friday, March 21, 2014

The Korean Workplace and Productivity

I've been thinking about posting my thoughts on the Korean work ethic, office productivity and politics for a while now. I spotted this excellent article that discusses many of the things that frustrate me about working in Korea, so I thought I would share it. I should point out that my school is not as bad as the workplace discussed in the article, but I definitely see most of the topics discussed on a daily basis. Below are some select quotes. You can find the full article here. A Korean translation can be found here.

I definitely see top-down management which could be likened to an army division. Everyone has their place in the hierarchy. As a westerner I'm at the bottom of the hierarchical structure. As for the short notice on doing things, anyone who has worked in Korea could attest to this. But as Koreans will tell you, Korea is dynamic and things change at a moment notice. 
Korean corporate structures are notorious for their top-down approach and rigidity. Some experts even compare corporate Korea to an army division, such is the influence of military service and authoritarian leadership on the corporate landscape. A byproduct of such rigid corporate structures is constant and unnecessary reporting to senior directors, as soldiers to a superior officer. Teams will brief department heads weekly, and sometimes even the board of executives on a regular basis. Also, if a director wants to know about something, regardless of whether it is of concern to their project goals, a team leader will be forced to present a report to the directors, usually within a very short timeframe.
"We don't need English in Korea". I've heard this from both students and teachers. Most of them (even those who can speak English) never venture outside naver (a popular Korean search engine) when looking for information. There is no Korean equivalent of Youtube or the English version of Wikipedia. There is so much information on the internet in English. One day google translate will do a good enough job that they won't need to learn English, but until then English is essential. 
English communication is also a major issue at Korean corporations. Many Koreans, frustrated with the emphasis on English in their country, will question the necessity of English when they never use it in the workplace. Most Koreans think that learning English is only useful as a means to communicate with foreign business partners, or for use in business emails. But they overlook the fact that a world of resources and knowledge (case studies, annual reports, professional tips) is available to them via the Internet predominantly in English, and only a fraction of what is out there has been translated thus far into Korean. Foreign workers will always have the advantage of a simple Google search, which can provide hundreds to thousands of alternative information sources to what is available to a Korean limited to searching in Korean on a portal such as Naver.

All too often I feel like I am the only person in Korea who asks "why".
Often did I witness co-workers blindly repeat “yes, yes, yes” to a senior employee’s orders without the slightest query as to “why” or “how,” leaving them with little understanding of the work they were agreeing to do
Who scans your groceries at the supermarket? It's not the kids with part time after school jobs. They are busy studying for a test at a Hagwan. Your groceries will be scanned by a middle aged woman, guaranteed.
Korean graduate employees, despite extreme competition for jobs, are under-prepared for the workplace, and come with poor research and reporting skills. This is a side effect of an education system based around testing and lack of practical applications. Many young graduates come into the workforce with next-to-zero work experience, bar a few obligatory volunteer activities.

This is my biggest pet peeve about the Korean workplace. I am lucky in that I have fixed hours at my school, but unlucky that during vacation (when there are no students at school) I am forced to come to school and sit at my desk, regardless of if I have any work to do. I'm sure we (westerners) are forced to do this to give parents the impression that they are getting value for money from their foreign teacher. 
In business or social situations both, Koreans have a penchant for giving off the impression of being busy. Rarely will you meet a Korean that will say they have relaxed recently. Being busy is the desired state and worn as a badge of honor.

This leads to Korean workers staying late, much later than any of their OECD counterparts, to give the impression of being busy. Unfortunately, staying late at the office does not equate into greater productivity, and although Korean work colleagues will claim to be very busy at work, the reality is that most are over-exaggerating their workload, which brings Parkinson’s law of time into effect.
Parkinson’s law is the adage which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The Korean workforce all know that they will be expected to work overtime hours whether they have work or not - it’s again another test of perception, loyalty, and social pressure. So what naturally occurs is the application of Parkinson’s law. Why finish your work by 5 o’clock when you know you will be at the office until 10 or 11 anyways?

My workplace is on the better end of the workplace spectrum in Korea, but even so working here has been a learning experience and taught me a lot about what doesn't work well in the workplace.  

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