Where Employee Productivity in Worst in the World (and Why)

South Korea was recently named the worst place for worker productivity in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. While a lack of good time management skills being chiefly to blame, there are several reasons why corporate Korea is caput.

One major problem is South Korea’s rigid top-down approach to structure and hierarchy, which has been heavily influenced by military service and authoritarian leadership. This results in constant reporting to senior directors, much like a soldier to a superior officer. Even the bosses are expected to report to their bosses; team leaders must report to directors with lavish presentations, often dropping team-related work to focus on researching the presentation. This cycle of ad hoc reporting basically guarantees that little to no strategic work or movement occurs within the company.iStock_000015842329_TugOWar

This problem is not unique to the East. How many times have you spoken to a customer service representative, requesting some service or another, and they responded with something like, “That is against our company policy,” or directed you to one supervisor after another, trapping you in a frustrating limbo of on-hold muzak and not having your question answered? I used to be a waiter, and I recall a specific time when a couple wanted to split a cheeseburger; a simple request, right? So I asked the cook to please halve it before he set it out to be served. He replied, “We don’t do that here.” I took the burger situation into my own hands and cut it before I brought it out, and the couple was pleased.

We all know that substance is more important than superficiality, but that doesn’t stop Korean employees from spending days beautifying a report with graphs and clip art, with information that took no more than a day to compile. What’s more, employees typically reply “Yes” immediately to their bosses’ requests instead of first asking “Why?” or “How?” simply to impress their overseers. It’s all about appearance, and looking busy seems to be more important than actually working, with workers often times over-exaggerating their workload. It essentially boils down to Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Just because someone is not busy does not mean they are lazy.

At the same restaurant that I worked for, some of my managers got on my case about standing around and doing nothing. It seemed that they forgot from the last time that I work quickly: my side work was already done, and done well. I would run other servers’ food, but sometimes there was a lull, and I had already swept my section, restocked the bathroom, and cleaned the dishes. One of the managers said, “It’s all about perception. Just look busy. Even if your section is swept, sweep it again.” I implemented this, and was given a raise.

The perception of looking busy plays into this following issue: mobile phones and online communication. The ease of and preference for communicating online has crippled productivity in Korea. The perception of talking in the office equates to not working, so most employees are engaged in surreptitious online messaging during business hours. In a recent survey of 706 office workers by job search portal Career.co.kr, it found that over 61 percent of respondents said they have a resting place at work. Of these 61 percent, a quarter said that they would escape to the toilets, with just under 45 percent responding that they use their phone during this time for games, Internet, text, and phone calls.

Wasted time on the Internet is not limited strictly to Korea. In America, employees waste enough time on “non-work tasks” to cost their employers some $134 billion in lost productivity, according to BOLT. A survey by salary.com revealed 64 percent of employees visit non-work related websites every day at work. Of that group, 39 percent spend one hour or less per week, 29 percent spend 2 hours per week, 21 percent waste five hours per week, and only 3 percent said they waste 10 hours or more doing unrelated activities.

When it comes to communicating within the workplace, Korean companies lack direct, honest, and effective communication. Also, the use of English in the workplace is encouraged by company leaders, but found unnecessary and frustrating to employees. Conversely, team luncheons and after-hours drinking has become derisive, leading to factions within the company and an atmosphere of distrust and the bad kind of competition, as well as the subsequent reason Korean companies are the worst to work for in the world: Hung-over workers. Those after-work hours spent drinking are actually encouraged and sometimes paid for by the company. Why? They believe (despite the workplace factions) that it promotes loyalty and better interpersonal communication. The only requirement is that they are at work the next day. In the same study by Career.co.kr, it also found that nearly half of the 708 respondents would leave their desks to go to a rest spot three or four times a day. They would stay there for an average of 13 minutes, catching up on the sleep they missed the night before or waiting out the headache.

Finally, South Korean workers typically come unprepared to a new job or workplace. Their education system is centered on testing, resulting in a lack of practical application (sound familiar?). The average age of a new hire in Korea is 33.2 years old due in part to extra years spent studying for various certificates and qualifications deemed essential for employment. The average Western counterpart of the same age has about 10 years of real-world experience.

And in case you were wondering, Norway generates the most output per working hour according to a U.N. report, the US coming in second, and Ireland third, ahead of Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, respectively.

Do you have any stories about terrible (or outstanding) worker productivity? Tell us about it.