Saturday, December 31, 2005

Korea's productivity gone south

[photo: A happy worker is a busy worker. I like The cut of your jib, Kushibo. Let the fools have their tartar sauce.]

Lost Nomad links to the annual news that South Korean workers work too long (30 percent more than Americans), trashing their marriages and forcing kids to grow up barely seeing their absentee fathers (and increasingly, absentee mothers). And despite that, productivity still isn't' all that high. Go figure!

Some skeptics 
of the much-touted "Korean work ethic" (like Daehan Miguk in the Lost Nomad's comments section) rightfully state that "time spent at work in South Korea does not equal productivity." This is especially true in neo-Confucian, top-down hierarchical organizations where people are supposed to stay at work until the boss leaves. Their actual work is probably long finished (or it's not, but they're too mentally exhausted to do any more of it), so the remainder of the time (usually well after 6 p.m. has come and gone) is spent talking with co-workers, surfing the Internet, or talking on the phone with others.

Of course, there are other companies, such as my primary employer, where there really is way too much work for employees, and people are staying until 10 p.m. or midnight, or coming in on Sundays and holidays, because that's the only way to get all the work done.

So you have one type of company where people are supposed to look busy but could probably leave at 5 p.m. and it would make no difference in productivity, and then you have ones where even if they stay until 10 p.m., they're still not getting all their work done. I'm guessing the proportion is somewhere around 50-50.

For years, Korean companies have resisted going from a six-day workweek (until a couple years ago, when banks and then government agencies adopted a five-day workweek, virtually all Korean organizations required workers to come in for a half-day, usually finishing around noon or 1 p.m., on Saturday). The primary reason was that they feared productivity would go down (a secondary reason was that Korean employees got too many holidays, including Arbor Day and Constitution Day).

Converting to the five-day workweek will be a boost in productivity, not just in per-hour prodctivity, but in overall productivity. Too little gets done in the three or fours of work on Saturday to justify dragging people in. Cutting the workweek some 10% with the elimination of Saturday work schedules would probably mean little or no corresponding drop in how much each employee gets done, thus there is no loss to the companies (most service-sector businesses, except retail, simply don't have anyone come in on Saturday to fill in for the Monday-to-Friday employees).

Furthermore, that sixth "half day" comes with an opportunity cost: it's one less day for workers to rejuvenate themselves so that they can be more productive, creative, and happy Monday through Friday. In other words, reducing the workweek from six days to five can actually boost productivity.

More importantly, freeing up the sixth day for leisure will eventually translate into a boost to the economy in the form of greater economic activity. Employees with only one day off per week are often too exhausted to do anything on Sunday except stay home and watch TV. If they had two days off every weekend, then they would be more likely to take trips around the country and just go out on Saturday and Sunday. A boon to the tourism (which now is heavily seasonal) and entertainment industries, and perhaps retail as well.

A two-day weekend, as opposed to a one-day weekend, means the development of a more widespread part-time workforce, especially in the retail sector and parts of the service sector, which can be beneficial to families with a need for a little extra income, as well as for the economy as a whole.

Ironic that taking a day off would lead to greater economic output, huh?

There is resistance to the five-day workweek, though, and not just from companies for whom cutting work hours means hiring weekend employees (and those companies who just hold fast to the facile notion that more work means more production). This resistance partly comes from the fact that there are probably more than a few people who are deathly afraid of spending more time with their estranged family.

I kid you not. There are many absentee fathers and absentee husbands who have found themselves married to someone with whom they have little in common and therefore feel uncomfortable and awkward spending too much time with. Their kids have become strangers and their kids' problems are something they just don't want to know about.

It's no wonder that such families anesthetize themselves by watching cable (this is the real reason OCN is Korea's #1 channel) or videos: sitting in a room watching TV together gives the comfortable illusion of being together even if no real interaction is achieved.


  1. This is a bloody good post. I have been arguing this for years with Koreans. If you want a vision of non-productivity, check out the Immigration Dept!

  2. What do you mean about the Immigration Department?

  3. 1000 people working there, but only one line ever seems to be operating...

  4. You have the point here about the problems with the work systems. The old systems came from fierce competition, both from outside and within, that instilled into most corporate heads the "more workhours, more production" mentality, which seems quite out of place today, tho.

    Admitting, however, that the past Korean economy "has been" driven mostly by the mass production system, I want to add that the concept of "work efficiency" is the one very recently being adopted by the Korean corporate environment, along with human resources management and some more, however long ago they were first introduced.

    The 5-day workweek is one example of how Korean economy is adopting itself to such concepts that were usually forieng to them.

  5. Here are a few things I have noticed in the Korean workplace:

    1) Lack of supervision. Koreans seem to take a lot of coffee breaks, and sometimes disappear for hours at time, often going to a sauna to relieve the hangover from the previous night's office party.

    2) Lacking of training. Some Koreans use word processors to prepare spreadsheets, and presentation software to prepare documents because they do not know how to use the appropriate application.

    3) Lack of experience. Many times employees are moved to a different job just as they were starting to learn their previous job.

    4) Lack of teamwork. Koreans often hoard information in an attempt to protect their jobs from better qualified underlings. Supervisors will give those in their charge a fish without telling them how to catch the fish, which means the employee must keep coming back to them for another fish. This is a big waste of time.

    5) Lack of motivation. In Korea, the rule is usually "do your time and get promoted"; not "work hard and get promoted."

    6) Lack of planning. Koreans often begin a project without the proper planning, choosing instead to fix the mistakes along the way. Many times a director or manager will just tell his or her people to do a job without telling them how he wants the job done. This is done because the director or manager does not know exactly what he or she wants, but feels he or she will know it when he or she sees it. A lot of time is wasted this way.

    7) Lack of delegation. Sometimes it takes a whole day to write one letter because the letter is usually written by an underling who must get it approved by his assisstant manager, who must get it approved by the manager, who must get it approved by the deputy general manager, who must get it approved by the general manager, who then takes it to the director to get his stamp. In each step of the approval process, the approving supervisor often feels the need to make some change in the letter to show his authority and superior intellect. This results in a letter that is rewritten as many as six or seven times.

    8) Too much alcohol. Korean companies seem to use alcohol for bonding and as a way to keep their employees from realizing they have crappy jobs. This often leaves employees too tired or too hungover to do much work the next day.

    I think I will stop here.

  6. Gerry,

    I nodded at every point you made, especially #6, lack of planning. That one frustrated me more than anything else while I was living and working in Korea.


    Maybe you could write a sequel about the silly "sleep four hours, pass; sleep five, fail" approach to preparing for the entrance exam. I am still waiting to meet one brave Korean mother and child who will buck the system and let the kid get a good night's sleep every night.

  7. I am still waiting to meet one brave Korean mother and child who will buck the system and let the kid get a good night's sleep every night.

    Korean mothers who buck the system are all in the United States.

  8. Kushibo,

    You are right. I should have realized that since some of my students are academic refugees from Korea. Their fathers continue to live and work in Korea while their mothers live with them here. Apart from one 게으름뱅이, they all work really hard but still have personal time and get a good night's sleep every night. The academic refugees I taught in China didn't really get a break as Chinese cities are full of 학원 that suck the money and life out of poor Korean kids who spend all evening there after spending all day at an international school.

  9. Actually, some academic refugees aren't bucking the system, but rather beating the system by trying to slip through the 특례입학 loophole.

  10. In a hierarchial social system, personal responsibility is a non issue mostly, because it'll fall under the no one sees, no foul idea. I worked in Gangnam, and I met some people that worked at companies with these ideas, but mostly they didnt. You know who were the most miserable, my few Samsung students. They worked all the time, and for what? From what I gather, just the prestige...


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