World AffairsSociety
A Balance Between Work and LifeCan the Flextime Policy be adopted in South Korea?
Kim Ji-hye  |
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승인 2017.03.09  17:19:06
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FOR MANY years, workers have been struggling to find a way to balance work and personal life. Normally, when there is an imbalance between the two, workers’ satisfaction and work efficiency decreases. Thus, authorities have long been looking for a way to balance work and life while improving work efficiency, and the result was the Flextime Policy. The policy encourages workers to create a flexible organizational culture where workers can manage their daily schedules for work, childcare, self-development, and so on.
What is the Flextime Policy?
The Flextime Policy allows workers to voluntarily determine when and where to work, while the total amount of legal work time stays the same. It allows them to freely adjust their daily working schedules according to their needs. In South Korea, the Flextime Policy was first introduced in 2010 in response to the increasing number of workers who have trouble working and caring for their children at the same time.
The adoption of the Flextime Policy is more than needed in South Korea, one of the most workaholic nations. Currently, legal working hours in South Korea are set at 40 hours per week under the Labor Standards Act. Also, working hours cannot exceed 8 hours a day, excluding recess hours. However, working overtime is considered normal in South Korea. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s 2014 survey, about 43.6% of employees in South Korea worked overtime every day for at least one hour. Working long hours is considered a social obligation, and laws that limit overtime working hours are not strictly enforced. Meanwhile, employees who work overtime are usually not paid for their extra time at work. Although the average work hours in South Korea is the second-longest among the OECD nations, the country’s labor productivity level is among the lowest, earning only $31.8 per hour in 2015, compared to the OECD average of $45.9. The Flextime Policy intends not only to improve each worker’s life, but also to increase the overall labor productivity of the country by reducing overtime working conditions.
Examining the benefits and costs
The Flextime Policy brings multiple benefits both to the workers and to the company. Since the policy allows workers to choose when to work, their satisfaction in both work and life increases. It is a *support mechanism* that improves the quality of life of workers since they can work during any time of the day, when they feel most comfortable. According to a 2016 survey by the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry (KCCI) on the employees from 300 different companies, 97% of the respondents said that the policy helped them to find balance between work and family life, while 96% said that their overall job satisfaction had increased.
When workers are more satisfied with their job, their labor productivity increases at the same time. In 2011, Yuhan-Kimberly, South Korea’s number one household items company, adopted the Flextime Policy, allowing its workers to freely choose when and where to work. According to Kwak Jung-soo, a business correspondent of Yuhan-Kimberly, in an interview with *The Hankyoreh*, the employees’ free time has increased by one or two hours per day, their overall job satisfaction has increased, and company revenues rose by more than 10% within the first year after the policy was introduced.
With the Flextime Policy, workers can also adjust their worktime to fit their children’s school schedules or to avoid rush hour in the morning. In Korea, some schools start at 9am – many parents who work cannot take their kids to school because of the start time. Workers no longer need to worry about how their children will get to and from school or leave young children at home alone before and after school. Also with Flextime, workers don’t have to worry about leaving early to avoid rush hour or waste time sitting in rush hour traffic.
Despite such benefits of the Flextime Policy, there are also downsides. Some critics argue that the policy comes along with great costs. For instance, if there is no set closing hour in the office, there will be too much overhead costs. Under the Flextime Policy, some employees may choose to work in the morning while others may choose to work late at night. This means that the company must keep the electricity, the heater, or the air conditioneron all day, which would be too costly. Moreover, flextime may not be applicable to all workers in South Korea. According to Kim Heung-hoi (Prof., Dept. of Public Administration, Dongguk Univ.), “If the Flextime Policy is adopted in a certain company, it would attract many talented workers. However, there are some companies that cannot enforce this policy, such as service and manufacturing sectors.” In the case of manufacturing sectors, the different working times of workers cannot be accomodated. Everyone works at the same time with a particular task at the assembly plant. However, if there is no worker in the area due to the flexible work schedule, it will be hard to maintain the factory. It would also be impossible to hold periodic business meetings and carry out collaborative projects when key members have different working schedules.
The Flextime Policy can also generate inequality between workers within the same business group. Suppose a certain company decided to allow its different business sectors to decide whether or not to adopt the policy. There could be a sector that decides to adopt it while there are others that don’t. This means that even though all the employers work under the same business group, not all are granted the same right to decide when to work. Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest seller of smartphones, memory chips and televisions, introduced a pilot flextime program in 2012, allowing employees to start their work anytime between 6:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., working for at least four hours per day. However, the system has not been applied to all the sectors, and only the workers from the selected sectors could benefit from the policy.
The need to modernize corporations with flextime
 According to the 2016 survey by the KCCI, the actual adoption rate of flextime in South Korea is only 22%, far behind that of other advanced economies. Only 13% of South Korean companies offer their workers flextime, compared to 81% in the United States and 66% in Europe. Telecommuting sectors in South Korea had the lowest adoption rate at only 3%. Also, among the companies that are considering implementing a flextime system, 24.7% responded that they faced the burden of labor cost in finding substitutes, while 23.3% said that they were worried about ordinary workers’ dissatisfaction about more work.
In the United States, many companies have already adopted the Flextime Policy. The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), one of the most popular computer hardware and software sales businesses, has been adopting the policy since 1980. They offer six types of flexible working options, including voluntary commuting, intensive work, part time, telecommuting, job sharing, and long-term leave, to over 400,000 employees around the world. Employees are evaluated based on performance rather than their hours worked. Efficiency and diversity of employees are respected by the company, but employees are required to have competence and expertise to manage and perform their work by scheduling themselves. The result was definitely positive. According to an IBM survey of 42,000 employees in 79 countries, most of them answered that they are highly likely to leave work if they have difficulties balancing life and work. However, due to the flexibility policy of the company, most employees turned out to be satisfied with their work. Accordingly, IBM has been enforcing its flextime policy and found improved retention of workers.
One of the problems in the South Korean working environment is that workers work overtime because of *noonchi*, meaning “tact” or “self-awareness” in Korean. To survive in an overly competitive working environment, workers often stay until late because they want to give an impression that they are working hard, and also believe that they should not leave until the boss wants them to leave. This is the reason why labor productivity is so low in South Korea. Just like the IBM, South Korean companies should also evaluate their workers through their performance rather than their total working hours. According to an interview conducted by *The Korean Bizwire,* Kim In-seok, who is in charge of employment and labor policy for the KCCI, said, “If companies are willing to improve productivity and the work-family balance, they need to adopt the Flextime Policy. Companies need to modernize their corporate culture and policies.”

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South Korea is still far from adopting a flextime culture. The working culture needs to gradually change, and a culture that prioritizes workers is needed. A framework that enables flextime should be created in the long term, and South Korea should promote such a system to create a developed job environment.

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