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In South Korea, Supporting Work-Life Balance is About Humanism: An Interview with Hillary VanVleck

Headshot of Hillary VanVleck wearing red blouse.

Among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, South Korea has historically ranked high on the list of the average number of hours its workers log annually, at over 2000 hours per year (in contrast, US workers work an average of just under 1800 hours yearly). Until very recently, most South Koreans regularly expected to work nearly 70 hours weekly, six days a week. Over time, this work-life imbalance—once considered a productivity booster—has instead resulted in lower productivity and a declining birth rate for the country as many workers, especially women, have been forced to choose between working and caring for their families. Even as laws change to better support a work-life balance, employers are protesting the changes. In this interview, Hillary Van Vleck discusses working on a government team tasked with convincing employers that the new laws would be beneficial for them as well as their employees.

Hillary, what was your role when you began working with your team on labor reform in South Korea?

My role was in team facilitation and communications. As the stability of employment is not assured in South Korea, many women have had to quit their jobs during their maternity leaves. This has been their only option, and it results in many talented forces being wasted. South Korea began an initiative to encourage companies to hire people who could work while their children were in school. This way, these people could have jobs and care for their families too. However, companies did not want to risk hiring people who were only available at certain times; they wanted fully available workers. The government began to provide financial support for the companies that would hire part-time workers. This helped to prevent career discontinuity by creating more flexible working hours, but many companies still did not want to change their rules. I took a job with a government team to enlighten company owners on the new policy and how it would be a win-win strategy for them and their employees.

Can you give us a brief overview of the kinds of working conditions that typically existed in South Korea before your team began its project?

A six-day work week was previously the standard in South Korea, and until 2012, students had to go to school on Saturdays as well. In 2004, the government changed a law to allow people to work five days a week under the same salary, but this change only applied to government workers. In early 2018 the South Korean government passed a bill to reduce weekly work hours for non-government employees from 68 to 52. The country is implementing the labor reforms in stages; larger companies must abide by the new law beginning in 2018, while smaller companies have until 2020 to implement the changes.

How did the labor reform project come about? Who initiated it? What professions were included on your team?

The government initiated the project, which arose due to existing laws and amendments of laws. My team included labor lawyers and professors with PhDs in labor or the relations of labor markets.

Why was the project important for the country of South Korea?

Marrying and having children has historically forced many people to quit their jobs. Meanwhile, companies did not want to support a shorter work week, and the government began making them pay a penalty. The government wanted to improve things for all workers; hence the importance of this project.

Which labor reforms did this project specifically accomplish?

The project is actually still in progress. The flexible working hour system is becoming more popular in South Korea. I believe I had a part in work and life balance management.

What kinds of challenges did your team have to overcome to reach these results?

We encountered a lot of complaining and yelling. The government convinced companies to take part in the conferences at which we explored these labor reforms, but many companies felt it caused them extra work. People called me and yelled about the extra work it was causing them. They misunderstood what the project was about, believing it was about feminism. I believe a balance between work and life is not about feminism, but about humanism.

How did your team help these companies to overcome their objections and realize the value of these labor reforms?

We held a conference and invited successful examples of work and life-balanced companies. One of these was a manufacturing company that hired people who wanted return from long maternity leaves, and work during the peak hours of 11 AM to 3 PM. This actually helped increase the company’s productivity. Employees could fully focus on their tasks without worries because they knew they could pick their children up on time. These real-life successful examples inspired reluctant representatives of other companies much more than the government did.

What are some of the most important things you have learned about motivating team members to work together when their personal differences present challenges to the team’s progress?

I have learned that when you want to compliment someone, it’s a good idea to do it in front of everyone; but when you must criticize someone, do it privately. I feel this is a good system for creating a positive work environment; it avoids creating a harsh environment if a teammate makes a mistake.

What is your favorite part of working as part of a team?

Being part of a team, I’m not only a solo player, but also a team player at same time. Everyone does their part and works together to accomplish the same goal. When everything comes together on project, it is really very fulfilling.

What are some of the most important things you have learned from team members you’ve worked with?

It’s important to be generous with others, but to be strict with yourself. Doing the opposite is a disaster. Before judging others, I try to judge myself—to protect myself, but also to protect the team.

What other projects have you worked on?

For the 2010 Formula 1 race in South Korea—the very first Korean Grand Prix—I worked as a deputy communications team leader. I trained for eight months for this position and did general administration as well as translation and interpretation between the South Korean and Australian Formula 1 teams.

How did your team specifically contribute to the success of that event?

As it was the first year of Korean Formula 1 races, experienced Australian workers came to help, and the Koreans and Australians had to work together. Because different countries frequently use different languages, international events always need communication teams. Miscommunication can cause terrible accidents and a hostile working environment. At successful sports events, there are always communication teams behind the scenes.

In the future, what kinds of projects do you hope to work on?

I hope to work on projects that a team and I can improve together, so I can be proud of our work.