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Commentary: Why South Koreans don’t want to be friends with colleagues on social media

Young South Koreans are pushing back against unhealthy work practices and putting up barriers to seize back work-life balance. That distinction between the private and professional is one worth welcoming, says Steven Borowiec.

Commentary: Why South Koreans don’t want to be friends with colleagues on social media

File photo of a woman in Myeongdong shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, May 28, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

SEOUL: Much of life in South Korea takes place on KakaoTalk, the country’s most popular instant messaging app.

It is the near universal, go-to platform for instant communication that 97.5 per cent of the country uses. It’s free and convenient, cast in attractive colours and features cute emojis. 

The app can also be used to call taxies, get directions and access online banking, meaning users spend even more time on it. 

The app is also now at the centre of the evolving nature of South Korean workplaces, as more companies are using it for work-related communication.

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But a recent survey by research firm Opensurvey found that more than half of younger workers born after 1981 were uncomfortable with the blurring of professional and private lives that results from using Kakao as a work messenger. 

A majority of those younger respondents (58 per cent) said the melding of work matters with personal life was what they disliked. 

A quarter of the boomer generation also expressed similar discomfort.


None of this is surprising when there have been general calls to create a cleaner separation between work and life in South Korea.

In recent years, South Koreans have complained of a stressful work environment and being on call 24 hours a day when work-related messages can pop up anytime on their smartphones.

People wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk along a crosswalk in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 7, 2021. (Photo: AP/Lee Jin-man)

Over seven in 10 South Koreans say they received work orders after office hours and the majority feel more stressed because of this situation, according to a study by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2016.

Young people too tend to be more individualistic, and less keen on the old-fashioned Korean way, where everyone stays late even if they’ve finished their tasks for the day and regularly go drinking together after work. 

For them, blurring the lines between work and social lives can create potentially awkward situations. Case in point: Older Koreans can be notoriously nosy in their interactions with young adults, taking unwelcome interest in people’s personal lives and career plans.

In many cases, young people try to conceal as much personal information as possible so as to reduce the likelihood of piquing anyone’s curiosity at work, to maintain a professional image. 

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There is also something uncomfortable about looking at one’s go-to messenger for personal communication, and seeing a group chat full of colleagues. Many of us, myself included, have made the error of hastily opening Kakao or Whatsapp and sending a message to the wrong group chat.

The risk of embarrassment is real if a snarky or romantic message spills into a professional group chat by mistake though it’s usually no big deal.

But there’s no walking away from this desire growing among young South Koreans to put up a firewall between work and social lives. Almost half of respondents to a survey by Saramin, a portal for people looking to switch jobs, say they deliberately minimise social interactions at work, the majority of whom are South Korean millennials. 

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It comes as little surprise when South Korea suffers some of the longest working hours among OECD countries and there is a rising consciousness among youths of the need for psychosocial well-being and self-care.


So how can South Koreans rebuild those work-life boundaries? 

People wearing face masks walk by lanterns for the upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday on May 19, 2021 at the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: AP/Ahn Young-joon) People wearing face masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus walk by lanterns for the upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday on May 19 at the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Efforts to pass laws banning employers from sending work-related messages outside work hours have met with resistance, particularly because such bills have tried to tag on extra pay as penalties for such requests.

The good news is the Ministry of Employment and Labour said it would review potentially limiting the use of social network services for work-related messages.

Where the problem young South Koreans face in wrestling back personal time is global, perhaps some suggestions from around the world are worth companies in the country pouring over. 

Experts who study these matters agree that companies need to institute and enforce guidelines as to how employees ought to communicate by messenger.

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COVID-19 too has shone a spotlight on unhealthy work practices and demanded employers better support their staff, when homes became workspaces overnight. A Harvard Business Review article published last year argued: 

To reap the social benefits of these tools while minimising the risks of employee distraction or diminished mental health, organisations should clearly define expectations for personal messaging.

One step towards achieving that is for companies to encourage employees to sign off messaging apps and advise co-workers to refrain from contacting them if offline or away.

It seems drastic but could be in the interest of businesses. A 2020 study by researchers in the United Kingdom found that while employers have customarily worried that allowing employees to work remotely would mean workers would be less diligent, evidence shows that telecommuting leads to longer work hours, with impact on mental well-being and productivity.

But to maintain remote work as an effective model, a line between time on and off the work clock is important. The UK study found: “Productivity relies on workers being able to both focus at the appropriate time and disengage at other times to recover from work-related stress and maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

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It is likely to get even more difficult to separate the public and the private. As the pandemic normalises work from home and more people are left juggling various responsibilities, the term “business hours” no longer holds a clear definition. 

In the South Korean context, one possible solution would be to ask coworkers to use an alternate messaging app, such as Whatsapp or Telegram, for work communication, leaving Kakao for chats with friends and family. 

It is tempting to lament the fading of the old-style Korean workplace. Early in my time in this country I worked at a major daily newspaper and was treated as one of the family.

But ultimately young South Koreans’ resistance towards mixing the professional and the private is a sign of a healthy evolution, and indicates that a more rigid distinction between work and home is desirable.

The hope is that this new separation between work and life does not inadvertently cut off chances of friendships between colleagues.

Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul.

Source: CNA/sl


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