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‘Office space’ no longer a synonym for purgatory

New generation in companies want some freedom and flexibility

Oct 04,2019
A “smart lounge” at 3M Korea’s office in Yeouido, western Seoul. 3M Korea has the best view overlooking the Han River. That view used to be enjoyed from offices for high-ranking executives. [3M KOREA]
3M Korea has a brand new working space - what used to be called office space in the last century.

Old offices in Yeouido, western Seoul, were converted into rooms of different sizes for one to 20 people. There’s plenty of “free address workspace” - common areas where anyone can plop down a laptop or tablet and work.

The most exquisite space next to the windows - with a great view overlooking the Han River - used to be offices for executives. Now it’s an employee lounge for everyone to enjoy.

Before the renovation, 3M Korea solicited opinions from young workers from each department.

“The small rooms for single employees were created as some of the younger employees wanted to work in a quietly confined area on their own,” said Kim Jung, head of the general affairs team. “After the changes, the number of employees satisfied with the workspace has doubled.”

Innovations are creeping into Korea’s offices. Companies are increasing shared spaces to try to imitate the corporate culture of Silicon Valley, hoping that collaboration and innovation will be spurred by new ways of sitting and working.

The tradition of assigning employees to desks is giving way to “hot-desking,” which is the practice of allowing people to choose where they sit, even if that changes each day. This is supposed to appeal to employees born in the ’90s. “Young employees are more interested in personal growth than high salaries or promotions in contrast to older employees,” says 3M’s Kim.

SK Telecom has created a “5G smart office” in a newly constructed building it rented in Gongpyeong-dong, Jongno District, central Seoul. Workers pass through a facial recognition system as they enter. When they reach the workspace reserved for them that day, all they have to do is put their smartphones in a dock, and customized personal work streams are uploaded on monitors. The dress code is “wear what you want,” and the office has a cafe feel to it.

Advertising company TBWA Korea’s office space, left, and SK Telecom’s 5G smart office, right. [TBWA KOREA, SK TELECOM]
“Ninety-two percent of employees gave positive reviews to this type of working space,” said Jeon Seong-woo, head of the company’s smart work division. “In the days of designated seating, an employee lowest in rank sat right next to the door. Now that employees can choose their desks freely, there’s no rigid hierarchy.”

Advertising company TBWA also underwent a major change in its workspace.

“In the advertising field, a high proportion of employees are young, and the recent surge in the number of employees born in the ’90s gave us something to think about,” said a TBWA spokesman. The aim was to boost work concentration levels by offering a wide variety of office spaces.”

“Older employees think that the newbies in the office who were born in the ’90s are strange. They want to leave work when the day is done - and not a second later - and even quit to pursue their dreams,” said Kim Nan-do, a consumer studies professor at Seoul National University who spoke at a seminar last Friday hosted by office furniture and interior company Fursys. “The time has come for companies to accommodate changes for employees born in ’90s.”

Inspiration has been gleaned from overseas. Global investment bank Goldman Sachs’ new office in London, which opened in June, did away with designated desks.

When partners are working outside, their offices are open to employees to hold meetings. The company assigned “workplace ambassadors” on every floor to be in charge of employees’ conveniences.

“These innovations in the workplace will raise the satisfaction level of competent white-collar employees, and employers intend to see improvements in work productivity from these measures,” reported The Economist.

But there are controversies over such radical changes to the way we work. According to The Economist, employees waste their time first thing in the morning as they try to find the best spots. Lower-ranking employees compete for seats, and some of the better ones are reserved for more senior employees.

Concerned about such issues, one major local company put restrictions on sitting in the same place for more than two days after it introduced free address workspace.

Some point out that improving a company’s organizational culture is as important than changing seating arrangements, especially considering the highly authoritarian culture of Korea. “Millennials contemplate how they can ‘grow’ through what they do at work rather than how fast they can get promotions,” said professor Kim. “[Companies] should find ways to increase employees’ creativity and satisfaction levels.”

“Unless conventional ‘blind obedience’ culture changes, results won’t come about even after changing the workspace,” said Yoon Chang-hyun, a professor of business management at the University of Seoul’s business college.

“It’s important to approach young employees, who are different from older generations, as ‘internal customers,” Yoon said.

BY IM SOUNG-BIN [kim.byungwook@joongang.co.kr]


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