Taipei, Taiwan – Taiwan has been lauded worldwide for its rapid response to COVID-19 but as it battens down the hatches amid a sudden new outbreak of the disease a big weakness has emerged from an unexpected corner: its workplace culture.
As Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center raised the alert to “Level 3” in Taipei and New Taipei City, home to almost a third of Taiwan’s population, over the weekend they imposed new restrictions on the size of gatherings and made face masks obligatory in public. They also urged employers to allow people to work from home.
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Streets were empty over the weekend as residents hunkered down at home. But come Monday it seemed everyone was heading to work even though the outbreak was emerging as the most serious one to hit the island since December 2019.
Employers, it seemed, would require more than encouragement to let their staff work from home.
“The fundamental issue going on is the government takes a deregulated approach to companies and doesn’t create the impetus to enforce change. We are finally confronting this issue right now when Taiwan is finally faced with having to work from home and that challenges the whole work structure,” said Roy Ngerng, a Singaporean who writes about wage issues in Taiwan, in addition to other work.
“How can you tell people to take leave to take care of their children or stay at home or take family to see doctor [because of] COVID-19? How can you not pay for it?” he said.
Like much of East Asia, Taiwanese workplaces have a reputation for being deeply hierarchical, with long hours that put a priority on face-time in the office above other productivity metrics.
For “knowledge workers” – people who work in fields like accounting, law, design and programming – researchers from Harvard University have shown that in the short term work-from-home arrangements can actually increase productivity and job satisfaction because people are able to organise their own schedule and save time by not attending meetings.
The government has not made any financial support available for those working from home – particularly crucial because when schools were ordered closed until May 28 across Taipei and New Taipei City, parents were told they were legally allowed to take childcare leave but they would have to negotiate any pay with their employer.
On social media, there were complaints that supervisors were refusing to allow work from home because they could not believe the staff could be equally productive.
Posts also appeared about employers insisting office workers come into the workplace in shifts rather than work remotely. Others were told they could work from home but would not be paid.
While working at a university-based research centre at the start of the pandemic, Ngerng recalls even in an academic environment, management was uncomfortable with employees working from home even though most work could be done easily online. When they did work remotely, they had to check in via video call three times a day, he said.
Christine Chen, who heads the employment and immigration law division at Winkler Partners, a law firm in Taipei, says Taiwan’s approach to work from home is largely determined by industry.
Many employees in the technology industry, she says, have been working from home for much of the year but in an economy where government data shows 97.5 percent of businesses are classified as “small and medium enterprises”, it is not as common in other sectors.
“I think it’s quite different by industry,” she said. “In tech, they are used to working from home or work – if the employee still can provide a product or finish the project in time. But for local businesses it’s not about trust, it’s about the product … it’s about whether this kind of work style can generate revenue for the company,” she said, adding that most small companies in Taiwan do not believe they can afford to take the risk.
Chen, whose firm is also working from home, says she hopes to see the government step in to provide assistance or tax breaks in other industries such as the service sector or food and beverage to cover wages of those who are unable to work.
Until Taiwan reaches Level 4 – a full lockdown – private companies have only been advised to allow employees to work from home although the local Taipei and New Taipei City governments have allowed civil servants to work remotely or adopt more flexible hours.
As the rest of Taiwan was placed under Level 3 on Wednesday, the government has yet to announce any further economic incentives to companies to allow remote working.
Mark Stocker, an American national who has lived in Taiwan for 30 years, says he has no plans to shutter the offices at the brand consultancy where he works as managing director unless the government declares a Level 4 alert.
“I would like to see everybody in the office as it aids communication,” he said. His firm has about 20 staff. “As a manager of a business you have to decide how rules are made and how to get everybody to agree to a set of rules, and my policy is because we are a foreign company operating in Taiwan, I’ve found it easier to follow government rules.”
Stocker speculates that Taiwan’s work culture is a hangover from its manufacturing roots and notes that even employees in offices and universities are required to clock in and out and are sometimes shamed for tardiness.
His first job on the island was at a company that made bicycle pedals and it was only after his pay was docked when he arrived 10 minutes late that he realised the difference in work culture.
“The preference for everybody being in the office as opposed to work from home, more than anything I think it starts from the fact Taiwan was a manufacturing nation and continues to be one.” he said. “The vast majority of GDP (gross domestic product) is export-related. That’s tangible and to run a factory you need people in the factory and on time.”