Firms wise up to shorter hours

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Firms wise up to shorter hours

Companies are getting creative with ways to improve efficiency in light of the 52-hour work week that will be legally enforced from July. While flexible working hours, open office space and smart machines promise to boost productivity, critics worry that the new policy may do more harm than good.

Many large companies are introducing flexible hours in an effort to boost productivity. They are preparing for July, when businesses with over 300 employees will be restricted to demanding only 52 hours a week from employees, as stipulated by a bipartisan bill that the National Assembly passed earlier this month.

Netmarble Games is allowing employees to come in for work when they please starting this month, as long as they are in the office between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The game maker has long been known as the “lighthouse of Guro,” in reference to how its lights were kept on late at night by programmers struggling to fulfill their heavy workload. Netmarble follows rival NCsoft, which introduced flexible working hours in January.

In 2009, Samsung Electronics became one of the first domestic companies to adopt flexible hours by allowing workers to decide when they wanted to arrive at the office. Today, the electronics giant only demands 40 hours a week from employees, given that they work at least four hours a day. With this system, workers who need to talk to partners in overseas countries like the United States, where the time difference can exceed 12 hours, can come to work at dawn and leave earlier in the afternoon.

Emart is using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to increase productivity in its warehouses. Robots take care of a wide range of labor-intensive tasks from categorizing products to picking orders off the shelf and packaging.

“Work satisfaction here is considerably higher than in other warehouses because robots are doing the hard labor that people would have otherwise done by pushing carts,” said Anh Cheol-min, head of Emart’s Gimpo warehouse in Gyeonggi.

AI technology can also be helpful around the office. AI-powered recruiting systems that can assess 10,000 applications in eight hours are currently being reviewed by many companies. It would take a human recruiter 560 hours to complete the same workload.

Companies are also embracing fluid workspaces to foster collaboration and save on time spent moving to meeting rooms. The SK building in Jongno district, for example, is adopting an open plan office space accessible to employees of SK subsidiaries and partner companies.

“We have to abandon the stereotype that investing a lot of time in the same team and space is work, but transform the working space to be project-centered,” said SK Chairman Chey Tae-won earlier this year in his New Year’s Address.

Lotte Property & Development is making its working environment more open by getting rid of assigned cubicles. Employees, regardless of their position in the company, can sit anywhere they want. Most desks are not even partitioned.

“Work efficiency increased as project members, regardless of their seniority or team affiliation, began sitting together, no longer having to move seats for meetings,” explained Lotte spokesperson Seo Kyu-ha.

Shortened working hours doesn’t guarantee that all workers will be left happier, however. One concern is that employees will be taking work home, or simply be unable to fulfill their responsibilities, if they have deadlines to meet but are not given time to work.

This is especially applicable to R&D-heavy businesses like semiconductor makers. A 52-hour week may prevent employees from finishing their work in busy seasons ahead of a new product’s release. Critics are suggesting working hours should be regulated by year, rather than by month. This way, smartphone developers, for example, could work late hours for several weeks before the release of a new model and then take a one month break afterwards.

There is also the concern that strictly enforced working hours will exacerbate the pay gap between workers at smaller and larger companies. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which provide 90 percent of all jobs in the country, may have to give their employees a paycheck smaller than what they are already receiving.

“With overtime work no longer possible, people who had been working 12 hours a day and receiving four million won a month [$3,720] will have their salaries shrink down to 2.5 million won a month if they only work eight hours,” said Kim Min-seok, a manager at the Korea Federation of SMEs. “The wage gap between employees at conglomerates and SMEs will expand even more, making it harder for SME to attract workers.”


BY PARK SU-RYON AND CHOI HYUN-JU [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]

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