After nearly two years of Covid-19, the world has seen transformational changes in workplaces. We’re spending more of our lives on screens, and less on commutes. Across the world, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for many, but also exacerbated existing inequalities, particularly for women.
Increased mobility also means our workplaces can easily extend into our homes, with workers available to their bosses for longer periods.
All this has led many to reassess their lives and priorities. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the “Great Resignation”, or perhaps a “Great Reshuffle”, mostly in relation to the US, where a record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September. In Asia, businesses have also reported a loss of productivity due to labour shortages.
A survey carried out by EY in March found more than half of employees globally would consider quitting their jobs if they weren’t provided post-pandemic flexibility. Among respondents in Southeast Asia, nine out of ten said they wanted flexibility about where and when they worked.
The traditional stereotype of Asian workplaces has been one of great hierarchy – an environment where younger employers and those further down the corporate food chain don’t question their superiors, and accrue many hours of unpaid overtime, including through entertaining clients after-hours. We picture Confucian-style workplaces in which harmony and respect for elders take precedence over innovation.
Conversely, in New Zealand we like to see ourselves as having a more egalitarian approach to management. A culture where we let everyone get stuck in and contribute ideas.
And yet, an international management consultant whom my colleague bumped into recently observed that New Zealand had a more top-down approach than we might like to think.
Originally from India, he’d been surprised by what he’d seen here. Our government sets the framework for business, management sets the goals, and the workers follow their instructions. He questioned whether we really make the most of the potential of younger employees to drive innovation and to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
In Asia, it’s true that a more traditional, hierarchical approach has dominated many workplaces. But the pandemic has also forced a reassessment of some bureaucratic traditions. Japan, for instance, has been re-evaluating the use of hanko – physical name seals that have been crucial to sign documents, open bank accounts and finalise contracts. This year, Japan’s government launched a new digital agency to overcome “inefficiency in public administration” and to be more inclusive.
Young people are driving change in work cultures in Asia. Amid declining fertility rates and aging populations that see younger workers caring for their parents, they are challenging the notion that they should dedicate their lives to the office in a bid to get ahead.
One of the most prominent examples of this is the “lying flat” movement in China, an anti-consumerist and anti-competitive movement driven by millennials who have opted to cut their working hours and spending habits. Mentions of “tang ping”, the Mandarin term for “lying flat”, have been restricted on China’s internet and the CCP sees it as a threat to stability.
These millennials have seen themselves as challenging a “996” work culture, which refers to the working hours practised by some Chinese companies: 9am – 9pm, six days a week.
A couple of years back Alibaba’s Jack Ma endorsed that work schedule, saying those who worked longer would receive the “rewards of hard work”.
However, in August, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a statement warning companies that the 996-work schedule was in fact illegal.
Likewise in South Korea, millennials are increasingly questioning a culture that prioritises long working hours. They are seeking greater work-life balance in a push-back against a culture of “gapjil”, a portmanteau used to describe authoritarian behaviour shown by people in positions of power.
India is home to one of the world’s youngest populations – the country has an average age of 29. Its government sees this as being an economic asset, noting that its working-age population has a high proportion of digital natives and that they are socially mobile and diverse.
The recent appointment of Parag Agrawal as CEO of Twitter made him the latest Indian-born leader of a US tech giant, joining the likes of Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Sundar Pichai at Alphabet, parent company of Google.
Tech industry watchers have noted that India’s diverse society, with many customs and languages, is an asset for successful leadership, and that the Indian-born managers have the ability to overcome obstacles and to think outside the box.
Two years into the pandemic, some of the things people used to consider norms in workplaces seem set to disappear for good. This will require businesses to harness different skills and build different capabilities. All the signs are there that a management-heavy approach is unlikely to yield good results.
Looking ahead, New Zealand will need to harness the potential of our young and their connectivity in order to adapt to the changing world.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.
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