Working at home goes from cool to critical

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Working at home goes from cool to critical


An office worker, working from home due to the coronavirus outbreak, posted a written sign on his bedroom door asking family members to not disturb his “office.” [SCREEN CAPTURE]

With an estimated 100,000 Koreans working from home in the age of the coronavirus, it would seem that the good old days of being chained to the desk are gone.

The reality is somewhat different. While Korea is a technological leader globally, some of its companies are not yet set up for remote work. Employees are struggling with connectivity and configurations issues, while efficiency seems to be dropping as the value of face-to-face interactions is lost.

Some companies are embracing the work-at-home model, with a few even saying they might adopt remote architecture completely and permanently, but much of Korea is still trying to figure it out.

On Feb. 25, a manager at a chaebol told the JoongAng Ilbo he returned home just one hour after clocking in at the office. The company ordered all employees to work from home. While he tried to access his company’s groupware through a virtual private network (VPN), he couldn’t get it to work.

“This was the first time I ever tried remote working. It took me more than four hours to install a VPN and access my company’s sever,” he said.

Some employees point out that the lack of infrastructure makes working from home less efficient than working at the office.

“For large companies, working from home is easier since many are equipped with necessary infrastructure. But our company is not, and it has really decreased our work efficiency,” said an employee at a local company.

Another obstacle to remote work is the deeply rooted emphasis on face-to-face meetings. Company employees have had to run back to the office for managers who prefer to have meetings in person.

Many international companies are designed these days for remote operations, with their IT infrastructure built from the ground up to be accessed by their employees when they are away from their workstations. In Korea, it is not always that way.

While many local companies are facing difficulties, some say that remote working is not impossible, and they are welcoming the opportunity for change.

Kakao said it conducted 20 interviews to hire new employees by video call last month. Last Wednesday, the company ordered all its employees to work from home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Kakao said it plans to continue interviewing new hires via calls. It is also likely to have its employees work from home longer, even permanently, and has put an end date on the remote work order.

The company wants its employees to use this opportunity to get accustomed to working with others through its communication tools, Agit and KakaoTalk. Kakao hopes to digitalize the work flow and transform the company into a smart office.

Among the chaebol, SK Telecom was the first to introduce remote working on a large scale. The company has decided to extend its working-from-home order through March 8. Park Jung-ho, CEO of SK Telecom, emphasized that the company will use this opportunity to completely change the working environment.

Companies like SK Telecom and Kakao, who are at the forefront in introducing a remote working culture, say efficient IT solutions and a change in corporate culture are two key elements in changing the working environment. These companies were using cloud-based software and utilizing corporate mobile messenger apps like Slack and Jandi before the virus outbreak.

In the case of SK Telecom, its employees use the Teams messenger app from Microsoft and hold business meetings through T Group call, an in-house group calling system. Some international companies use G-Suite, a business tool from Google. It offers solutions for emails, virtual meetings, cloud storage and word processing and presentations.

Some are starting to look toward local IT solutions. Wehago is a business tool provided by a Douzone Bizon. It offers cloud-based solutions used for remote work to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

A local SME said it started using Wehago last Tuesday so that employees can work from home. While it shut down its office after one employee working in the same building was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus, employees work normally, hold virtual meetings and getting approval for projects through the cloud.

This has led to a heated competition among local IT solutions businesses, as more SMEs are looking to implement business tools to assist teleworkers.

Some software companies are providing their telecommunications software for free in an attempt to expand their client base. Rsupport, a local IT company, is doing just that with its Remote Work. NHN, a Naver company, provided its Toast Workplace, a cloud-based business solution, to companies for free.

While companies are swift to implement technical solutions, experts say that they need to change their corporate culture in a direction that emphasizes efficiency, in order to sustain this new working culture.

SmartStudy, best known for its viral children’s song “Baby Shark,” has more than 80 percent of its employees working from home. The company shared its guidelines for working at home with other companies. The guidelines list the pros and cons of remote work and offer case studies from the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2015.

“For companies where the telecommuting system is already in full swing, this is a very natural way of work. Our employees had no problem working from home since we’ve always respected each individual’s decision to choose how they want to work,” said a spokesperson from SmartStudy.

Woowa Brothers, the operator of a local food delivery app, is known for a corporate culture that emphasizes responsibility and autonomous decisions. It started offering telecommuting options to its employees last month.

“Employees are not required to report to managers when they decide to work from home but are required to do so if they decide to come into the office. This is possible because our corporate culture respects autonomy but also is transparent in valuing performance,” said Seong Ho-kyoung, a spokesperson for Woowa Brothers.

Business analysts say that companies should take small steps to fully incorporating remote working into their office environment.

“Change cannot happen immediately, and it requires a detailed approach, from changing the way employees schedule work to changing how people set meeting agendas. It also requires change from different levels. Top-level executives should look into introducing new collaborative tools. Mid-level managers need to put efforts to change corporate culture,” said Choi Du-ok, a consultant from Beta Lab.

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