By BusinessWeek Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Presenteeism still triumphs over flexi-working in Asia

Despite being world leaders in broadband access with connection speeds far faster than most of Europe or the US, Japanese and Korean companies are not exploiting the possibilities of networking their employees.

The wireless networks in Japan and South Korea are state of the art, allowing high-speed internet use on mobiles or laptops outside work. But the business cultures of these countries means that while US managers are busy getting work done on their laptops during the commute to work, in Tokyo or Seoul they are far more likely to be playing games or watching video clips on the mobile phones.

This is reflected in the advertising for US telcoms that emphasises the way their services can increase productivity, while advertising in Asia emphasises the fun factor. ‘Face time' in the office still counts for more in Asian companies than getting the task done efficiently, if necessary while on the move or at home, as is more common in the US.

Confucianism emphasises group effort and consensus building rather than individual initiative, so team members stick around at the office even if they are not needed. Lee Inn Chan, vice president of Seoul think tank the SK Research Institute, argues for an overhaul in business processes and practices in Korea and Japan. "To reap full benefits from IT investment, companies must change the way they do business," he says.

Lack of clear job definitions also makes it harder for managers to assess productivity of workers off site, with the emphasis on time rather than tasks. Even tech companies such as Samson believe that person-to-person contact is far more effective than email.

Another factor is security fears attached to sending workers home with laptops containing proprietary information. At Korean companies SK Telecom, Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics workers must obtain permission before they take a laptop out of the office, and even then are still denied access to certain work files.

Inevitably, the restrictions on the amount of work that can be done outside of the office result in more work being done in the office, with workers clocking up long hours, working up until midnight and coming in at weekends. The growing emphasis on work / life balance emerging in the US and Europe has scarcely gained a foothold in Japan or Korea. And although the two countries rank highly in terms of investment in IT, coming in the top four in most surveys, they lag behind the US in terms of the productivity of IT workers, according to University of Tokyo professor Kazuyuki Motohashi.

There are signs of change though. Japan's NEC Corp is experimenting with telecommuting for 2000 of its 148,000 staff, and in Korea, CJ 39 Shopping, a cable TV shopping channel, lets 10% of its call centre staff work from home.

This trend may yet offer the chance of flexible working for parents of young children who find they cannot spend time with their children under the traditional system.

Source:
New tech, old habits
BusinessWeek, March 26

Review by Joe Gill

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