Feature

2020 on Hiatus

Did Taiwan Miss the Boat to Change Its Work Culture?

2020/05/22 ,

Opinion

Daphne K. Lee

Daphne K. Lee

Daphne K. Lee is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor for The News Lens International. She's a perpetual traveler who finds story ideas while roaming the planet.

What you need to know

Given Taiwan's much-lauded pandemic response, remote work was barely an option for many office workers. Taiwan might have missed the chance to leave its factory work mindset behind.

Prior to taking a full-time position in Taiwan, I was a “digital nomad” for nearly three years when it was still cool to be one. In 2020, working remotely is just a new reality for most knowledge workers — except for Taiwanese. 

The prospect of taking up a 9-5 job again wrecked my nerves. Could I ever succumb to an institutional structure when I barely took corporate internships seriously in college? How would I get along with coworkers who are culturally very different from me? More importantly, just how long could I stand being trapped in an office?

Thanks to my company’s cozy office and my surprisingly pleasant coworkers, I’ve survived the past year. I can deal with going to an office. I don’t thrive in one. The commute is still a waste of time, and the job simply doesn’t require my physical presence — as pleasant as that may be.  

A few disguised blessings of Covid-19 include a changed expectation of maintaining social connections and a chance for countries to really explore the future of remote work, if they haven’t already done so. 

But in Taiwan, given its much-lauded pandemic response, working from home was barely an option for many office workers. 

As the virus outbreak became increasingly worrisome and my coworkers caught the seasonal flu one after another, my company was still excruciatingly slow in announcing remote work. 

The American in me thought it was an outright violation of my fundamental human rights and freedoms. The Asian in me just sent my boss casual but intentional messages asking if management considered company-wide remote work.

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For lack of a better illustration, this is a photo of me traveling around Colombia while working as a freelancer in 2016. 

Eventually, we did work from home for three weeks when the imported cases surged in Taiwan. I was back in my natural habitat and my productivity skyrocketed, but my team struggled to catch up. My colleagues either found their home environment distracting or felt unmotivated; some were more comfortable with office rotation. 

In the three weeks of what my boss called an “experiment” of remote work, our team fiddled with the logistics between Zoom and Google Meet. Should we turn on our cameras? Yes, unless you’re sitting on a toilet. Can people please put themselves on mute if they’re not speaking? Please, I’ve asked three times.

Although our company has been using apps like Slack and Trello, meant to enable seamless virtual communication, we weren’t ready for a crisis. As a digital media group, we ought to be more tech-savvy than traditional corporations. The three weeks of work-from-home practice proved that we weren’t. 

Yet as soon as Taiwan started reporting a slowdown in new cases, we were back at the office. For management, it was a sigh of relief because “Plan Unthinkable” was no longer necessary. Even some of my coworkers said they felt lucky to be working in an office environment again. 

How marvelous that we all dodged the bullet of digital transformation in Taiwan.

When Taiwan is hailed as a tech hub, we might falsely imagine the country as another Silicon Valley. In reality, Taiwan is heavily reliant on exporting semiconductors and electronics, and the government has only recently started forging a startup-friendly environment. Despite technological advances in niche industries, Taiwan’s work culture is still stuck in its glorious manufacturing days of the 1970s. 

Roy Ngerng, a Taipei-based researcher who often comments on Taiwan’s work culture, told me that his company required employees to “report” three times a day via video calls during the work-from-home period as a form of reassurance. 

“Workers in Taiwan feel compelled to ‘look’ like they’re getting work done. So while work updates have their value in keeping tracking of progress, they can become a contrived performance, which instead causes more inefficiencies,” Ngerng said. 

教育部防疫 部分官員改線上參與會議
Photo Credit: CNA
A government official at the Ministry of Education attends a virtual meeting with some colleagues who are in the office on April 8, 2020. 

The impulsive need for Taiwanese employers to monitor their employees is evident in the archaic punch-in, punch-out system. Most employers state that it’s a labor law requirement to record work hours for the sake of labor insurance, but many have also taken advantage of this law to monitor workers and penalize them. 

In some cases, workers have their pay deducted for every 10 minutes of tardiness. Government institutions like the National Taiwan Museum require facial recognition for punching in, a former employee told me. “I couldn’t even wear a different pair of glasses,” she said. 

Taiwanese startups tend to be more lenient, but they’re not radically different. Most new media companies, for example, set a limit on the work-from-home days (one to four days per month). 

High-growth startups like CakeResume have no remote work policy. Wei Cheng Hsieh, chief operating officer at CakeResume, explained that “speed is critical for an early-age startup” and it’s difficult to keep up with momentum with a remote team. The lack of experience in remote management is also a concern, but he would consider making changes as his team grows. 

Remote work, when done properly, can improve employee productivity, creativity, and morale. Employers can also save on real estate costs incurred by maintaining a large physical space. 

Even without a pandemic, our offices are filthy. In workspaces, we’re more vulnerable to airborne diseases and decreased cognitive performance. Companies offering a flexible work-from-home policy would keep workers healthy and productive. 

The cultural stigma in remote work largely lies in a misconception that telecommuting is an employee benefit. This is not only close-minded, it’s wrong. 

For employers, offering remote positions can expand the talent pool exponentially. In Taiwan, 78 percent of employers face a talent shortage. Wage stagnation is a huge factor contributing to Taiwan’s brain drain, but employers are not looking outward either. The extra cost and complication of hiring a foreign employee leaves companies with minimal incentive. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Commuters wear face masks to protect themselves from Covid-19 spread during morning rush hour traffic in Taipei, Taiwan April 8, 2020.

After Twitter’s decision to allow employees to work from home indefinitely, Facebook followed suit. The pandemic has forced these tech companies to rethink their work model. Hiring remotely will do away physical barriers, allowing companies to diversify its talent demographics. 

One of my close friends, Srivatsa Ray, has worked remotely for over a decade and consulted numerous U.S. tech companies. The term “remote work” has a bad ring to it, Ray said. He prefers to call it “distributed work,” emphasizing that “talent knows no geopolitical borders.” 

But even if Taiwanese companies want to make a digital transformation, the infrastructure is lacking and government regulations burdensome. While the world is going cashless, Taiwan’s everyday tech progress is stalled by bureaucracy. 

Still a cash-dominant society, Taiwan is years behind on electronic payments. PayPal, a global payment service provider, pulled out of Taiwan due to cumbersome regulations. Something as basic as banking is so dreadful in Taiwan that any foreign entrepreneur would think twice before investing here. These hurdles will keep businesses from going fully digital or even efficient, if left unresolved. 

As impressive as Taiwan’s Covid-19 response is, the country might have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to undergo drastic transformation.

We’re now celebrating the return of normalcy in Taiwan, but life was never disrupted to a point where we were forced to change or take on a new work model. We stay content with the old normal, the “small happiness” that Murakami has ever so deeply etched into Taiwanese culture. 

Countries that are struggling now might come out of the pandemic with a reformed workplace ecosystem, leaving Taiwan in its comfort zone, still dancing to its small triumphs. 


TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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2020 on Hiatus:

Our world has been plagued by things beyond the coronavirus itself: panic, disinformation, racism, unemployment, and loneliness. In a series of essays, we’re going to talk about the social and psychological impact through personal anecdotes and observations. Together, we would imagine the possibilities that await us after the pandemic.

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