South Korea is well-known across Asia for its long hours and ‘workaholic’ culture. According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korean employees worked for an average of 2,024 hours in 2017 – meaning the country places third in the world rankings of hours worked, behind Costa Rica and Mexico.

In what would have been music to many South Koreans’ ears, the government have recently announced a 52-hour cap to the working week. This new legislation means that all companies employing 300 people or more must impose the new cap – which was previously set at 68 hours a week. This new cap allows for 40 hours of ‘regular’ work, plus 12 hours of overtime. Smaller companies are expected to follow suit with this working hours limit in the coming years.

This law has been introduced by the country’s president Moon Jae-in, who has pledged citizens should have more of a ‘right to rest’.

Unsurprisingly, law firms and other large corporates in South Korea have a well-established long-hours culture. Writing about his experience in the book Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan, former journalist Frank Ahrens wrote about the hierarchical structure which was so different from what he was used to, with junior members of staff addressing him formally and when he asked them to call him Frank, it created unexpected discomfort.

This anecdote shines the spotlight on an issue facing many lawyers looking to move to different countries – cultural differences in the workplace can be stark.

However, attitudes around long hours and presenteeism are generally shifting, partly down to the new generation entering the workplace. It’s the so-called millennials – born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, who are shaking things up due to their different outlook and familiarity with technology.

Commenting on this issue, Richa Sharma, manager at Page Personnel Singapore has said that flexible work arrangements are a very common prerequisite among returning/working mums and millennials in Singapore specifically. And, as far back as 2013, a survey conducted by PwC, the University of Southern California and London Business School found that “businesses that want to attract and engage the next generation of workers have to remember that 74% of them want flexible work schedules and 88% prefer a collaborative work culture”.

Of course, in the legal profession there are some very practical reasons why flexible working can be an issue – for a lawyer working on a big deal, it is usually very important for them to be in situ, working closely with their team. But, with more and more firms offering flexible working, it is also vital that lawyers help open up the conversation and ask for flexible working – it’s definitely a two-way street, and embracing these new policies help ensure a firm isn’t just paying lip service to the new working revolution.

A culture change is needed, but we are starting to see more of the right policies and measures in place to allow lawyers to work flexibly – from the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore introducing their Tripartite Standard on Flexible Working Arrangements, to the option of working as consultant, which is becoming more and more accepted as an alternative to a traditional legal career path. As a sector, we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s also down to individuals to help move the conversation along and take advantage of these policies when they’re offered.

Negotiating a work-life balance which is right for you can take time, and although more firms are certainly opening up to the benefits of flexible working, it can be frustrating to have to start this process of getting the balance right if you move to a new firm, with different cultures and attitudes, or even a whole new country.

However, it’s certainly positive that many firms, much like the South Korean president, are recognising that lawyers should have a right to rest and that offering more agile working or tackling an unhealthy, yet established, long-hours culture can be a great thing, and not just for wellbeing.

A study of consultants by a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business revealed that managers could not tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to, proving that, as suspected, long hours simply aren’t the answer to increased productivity. It will be interesting to see how employees and employers in South Korea embrace the new working limits, but it certainly looks like a step in the right direction.

Posted by Matthew Kay

Matthew Kay is Director of Vario, from Pinsent Masons

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