Work at home not working

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Work at home not working

Yeom Tae-jeong
The author is a business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Remote work failed at IBM. The company scrapped the novel work system in 2017 after adopting it for over two decades. IBM concluded that working in the office was more efficient than working from home. In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer abolished the company’s work-at-home policy after singling it out as the primary reason for the perennial dysfunction at the internet company. Some companies successfully ran a remote work program at that time, but most of them didn’t.

What contributed to the revitalization of working from home was the Covid-19 pandemic. Companies, small and big, introduced it one after another to help reduce the risk of infection. But since the pandemic has subsided considerably, they are having heated debates over whether to scrap remote work — or how to keep it — to help strike a balance between productivity and quality of life and between autonomy and control.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk told his employees to “be in the office for a minimum of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.” Ian Goodfellow, a renowned developer of powerful AI tools, moved to Google in protest of Apple’s desire to get staff back to office. Such conflicts are taking place across the board today.

In May, Kakao announced a bold plan to switch to a “metaverse work system” starting July. But the company had to pause implantation after facing vehement opposition from employees. The new system enables workers to collaborate with their colleagues in cyberspace on a constant basis but at the same time connects them to a voice channel in real-time. The Big Brother-like feature of the revolutionary work system has raised questions about privacy.

Working from home was a very exceptional case in Korea. According to a survey by the National Information Society Agency(NIA), only 9.7 percent of local companies used the system as of 2019. The share has soared to 73 percent of the top 100 companies since the pandemic began two and half years ago. After the pandemic petered out, confusion has reigned. According to research on the current telecommuting situation after the ending of social distancing, the results of which were released by the Korea Enterprises Federation (KEF) on Wednesday, 29 percent of personnel affairs managers — the largest share — said that remote work was 90 percent as productive as working in the office. Last year, 40.9 percent of them gave the same answer.

The system of working from home was introduced by western countries in the 1990s to cope with demographic changes, such as low fertility rates and aging populations, with the arrival of the digital economy. As the new work culture has become a new normal, it is difficult to return to the past. As the KEF survey showed, 48.5 percent of the respondents were convinced of the possible application and spread of the work-at-home system even after the pandemic is completely overcome.

Despite the advent of the new work system, Korea’s preparation is lacking. Though big companies deal with it relatively well, small and midsized companies experience many difficulties. No guidelines have been set either, not to mention physical and mental problems stemming from working from home, as indicated in a monthly journal of the Korea Labor Institute (KLI).

Europe is ahead of Korea in preparing appropriate systems for remote work. For instance, Spain has enacted a bill allowing employees to work from home through digital equipment as long as their privacy and individual information is protected. Germany also revised an earlier bill on remote work to reflect new reality. But Korea only has a 200-page comprehensive manual on remote work published by the Ministry of Labor.

Other new work systems, such as the four-day week, are being tested around the globe. Over 70 British companies have kicked off an experiment in the four-day week. More than 3,000 workers from various industries will participate in the historical six-month-long experiment to help weigh their productivity, wages and welfare conditions. Korea cannot catch to the leaders in the workplace revolution despite the imminent wave of change. It is difficult to find an easy answer to what systems are more efficient and can improve the quality of life. But you cannot sit on your hands forever.
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