SEOUL, South Korea — The red-brick low rise building on a quiet side street in this bustling city doesn’t look like much on the outside. But the sleek offices inside have completely changed Chung-won Lee’s quality of life.
Lee is a government labor lawyer. Like thousands of people who work for the Korean government, his daily routine was upended recently when his ministry moved out of Seoul to a new capital in Sejong City, two-and-a-half hours away. Many of those workers, Lee included, chose to keep living in Seoul instead of moving.
Rather than waste all that time commuting, Lee works out of the offices here three times a week.
Smart Work Center, Seocho branch, is equipped with open cubicles, glass-walled private offices, state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities and an airy break room with refreshments. Each desk comes with a computer and photocopiers; printers and stationery are also available.
It may be one of the most quiet and pleasant office environments in all of Seoul. And any government worker can use it, so long as they’re not required to be in Sejong or anywhere else for face-to-face meetings.
"Health is a big concern for someone in their mid-50s like me,” says Lee, whose drive to the work center takes 30 minutes. “Discovering that I could work here has made a huge difference in my life.”
To reserve a seat, Lee has to book online in advance, then check in at the reception desk once he arrives at the center. He prefers working out of the center’s private offices, so he can make phone calls without disturbing the other workers. “Around 80 percent of my duties involve in-depth reading,” he says, motioning to the space around him, “and this is a wonderful place to get that done.”
“It’s made me so much happier.”A rough move
Seoul’s residents have a reputation for being early adopters of personal technology, so it stands to reason that they also would be early adopters of what may be the office setup of the future.
The Korean Ministry of Security and Public Administration runs nine smart work centers in Seoul, plus one in Sejong and four more in other cities. A major catalyst was the government’s move to Sejong, started in 2006.
The idea was to relieve some of the congestion that plagues Seoul — the metro area has about 25 million people — while putting a little more distance between the government’s administrative center and North Korea. The National Assembly, the president’s executive office and diplomacy- and security-related agencies will stay in Seoul.
Despite talk of a spectacular launch of a shiny new self-sufficient capital, the reality was that when it became time for the tens of thousands of government employees to move to Sejong, most had to leave their families behind in Seoul due to spouses’ jobs and childrens’ schools. Many jobs also entailed weekly, if not daily, visits to Seoul for work purposes.
The smart work centers were a response to help smooth out bumps in this transition. A big driver was security. Owing to tensions with North Korea, all government agencies use a heavily fortified intranet; officials can’t even check their email from outside an office. When workers based in Sejong had meetings in Seoul, they had to make it back to their Sejong offices to report the results of the trip. Starting in 2010, smart work centers gave them a place to check in from the field.
More recently, however, the centers have become part of a national strategy to create more work-life balance in Korea’s overwork culture. They’ve become an integral part of making commuting easier for workers like Chung-won Lee, whose lives now revolve around two cities 120 km apart.
Even for workers who never leave Seoul, they’ve become useful. Seoul’s metropolitan government, which tends to follow the national government’s lead, set up a smart work center for its own workforce (city workers are also allowed to use the national government’s centers).
Just within Seoul, hour-plus commutes are typical. The hope is that municipal employees will work from centers closer to home, saving themselves commuting time and giving them more time with their families. Corporate conglomerates such as Samsung, SK, LG and KT also have begun offering smart work centers for their employees.The beginning of change
The move to smart work centers would be a big change for office workers anywhere in the world. But it was an especially big change in Korea. The word noonchi is used to describe the office culture here. It means that if your boss is still at his desk at 6 p.m., you can’t go home. Smart work centers disrupted this dynamic.
“In the beginning, it was so difficult to get people to use the centers,” says Jong-Sung Hwang, who was the assistant mayor of Seoul City IT development from 2011 to 2013. Hwang now heads the Big Data Center of the National Information Society Agency. He says at the time of launch, the smart work centers were utterly incongruous to Korean work culture.
“There is a ‘collective work’ mentality and culture in Korea,” Hwang says. “At the end of the day, if a few people have not finished work then other people in the department feel obliged to stay at the office as well.”
“If an employee told the supervisor that they’d be working at a smart work center instead of coming back into the office, then the supervisor would immediately think they were going to slack off.”
When the agencies finally began to move to Sejong in 2012, however, workers had no other choice but to use the centers on their work trips to Seoul. And once the first few employees began utilizing them, word began to spread.
“It’s amazing how a culture can seem so ingrained it’ll be impossible to change, but within a year, it can change organically,” says Hwang. “It really surprised me.”
“It’s exactly like being at work,” says Kyeong-Kuk Kim, a senior deputy director at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance who lives in Seoul and works out of a center once or twice a week.
“The security is really high, the internal system is set up perfectly and it saves so much time,” says Kim. “Previously, I would have to report back to my Sejong office even after an afternoon meeting in Seoul. Now I can do that from a smart work center and then go directly home.”Steady growth
The number of users of the centers is shooting up. Last year, some 1,876 Seoul Metropolitan Government employees used the city’s dedicated smart work center, up from 1,492 the year before. (Even more city workers used the national government’s centers.)
In general, centers located in residential areas are getting less use than ones that are located near transit hubs and cater to people on business trips. The residential centers have usage rates of between 40 percent and 60 percent. Meanwhile the business-trip centers have usage rates of between 150 percent and 200 percent, meaning that a desk gets used by more than one person throughout the day. A center located in Seoul Station, a major rail hub for the entire country, has the largest capacity and also is the most popular.
The National Information Society Agency estimates that each smart work center accounts for $140,670 U.S. in saved transportation costs and 27 tons in CO2 reduction annually. If the NIA is to be believed, even the birth rate has been affected, rising from a world-low of 1.14 in 2009 to 1.3 in 2012.
“Youth problems, rise in divorce, health problems and high suicide rates are all related to overworking and bad work-life balance, which we seek to address,” says the NIA’s Yong-Tak Cho, who oversees public relations of the centers. Cho says noonchi remains an obstacle to employees using the centers — some workers are still afraid of what other workers, and especially their supervisors, will think of them.
“But slowly, we are changing the way people work,” says Cho.
The way Koreans have taken to the technology is different from how smart work centers have come about in other countries where they’ve been used, notably the Netherlands, the U.K., Germany and the United States. According to Cho, the difference is that in those countries, it’s employees who pushed for the work-life flexibility and employers are responding to their requests. By contrast, “in Korea the government is actually insisting that its employees use them, while employees are feeling uncomfortable doing so.”
“The baby boomers didn’t know anything but work — they missed their children growing up because that was just how it was back then,” says Cho. But the younger generations of Koreans seem to “get” the spirit of the program and that the aim is to improve quality of life.
“Younger people want to spend more time with their families,” says Cho. “This trend — this is how the future is going to change.”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.