Prior to taking a full-time position in Taiwan, I worked remotely for almost three years. I was a “digital nomad” when it was still cool to be one. In 2020, working remotely is just a new reality for most knowledge workers — except for Taiwanese.
The prospect of taking up a 9-5 job again wrecked my nerves. Could I ever succumb to an institutional structure when I barely took corporate internships seriously in college? How would I get along with coworkers who are culturally very different from me? More importantly, just how long could I stand being trapped in an office?
Thanks to my company’s cozy office and my surprisingly pleasant coworkers, I’ve survived the past year. I can deal with going to an office. I don’t thrive in one. The commute is still a waste of time, and the job simply doesn’t require my physical presence — as pleasant as that may be.
A few disguised blessings of Covid-19 include a changed expectation of maintaining social connections and a chance for countries to really explore the future of remote work, if they haven’t already done so.
But in Taiwan, given its much-lauded pandemic response, remote work was barely an option for many office workers.
Even as the pandemic became increasingly worrisome and my coworkers caught the seasonal flu one after another, my company was still excruciatingly slow in announcing remote work.
The American in me thought it was an outright violation of my fundamental human rights and freedoms. When Taiwan reached 100 confirmed cases, the Asian in me just sent my boss casual but intentional messages asking if management considered company-wide remote work.
Eventually, we did work from home for three weeks when the imported cases surged in Taiwan. I was back in my natural habitat and my productivity skyrocketed. But I could feel my team struggling to catch up as people either found their home environment distracting or felt unmotivated; some editors were more comfortable with office rotation.
In the three weeks of what my boss called an “experiment” of remote work, our team fiddled with the logistics between Zoom and Google Meet. Should we turn on our cameras? Yes, unless you’re sitting on a toilet. Can people please put themselves on mute if they’re not speaking? Please, I’ve asked three times.
Although our company has been using apps like Slack and Trello, meant to enable seamless virtual communication, we weren’t ready for a crisis. As a digital media group, we ought to be more tech-savvy than traditional corporations. The three weeks of work-from-home practice proved that we weren’t.
Yet as soon as Taiwan started reporting a slowdown in new cases, we were back at the office. For management, it was a sigh of relief because “Plan Unthinkable” was no longer necessary. Even some of my coworkers said they felt lucky to be working in an office environment again.
How marvelous that we all dodged the bullet of digital transformation in Taiwan.
When Taiwan is hailed as a tech hub, we might falsely imagine the country as another Silicon Valley. In reality, Taiwan is heavily reliant on exporting semiconductors and electronics, and the government has only recently started forging a startup-friendly environment. Despite technological advances in niche industries, Taiwan’s work culture is still stuck in its glorious manufacturing days of the 1970s.
Roy Ngerng, a Taipei-based researcher who often comments on Taiwan’s work culture, told me that his company required employees to “report” three times a day via video calls during the work-from-home period as a form of reassurance.
“Workers in Taiwan feel compelled to ‘look’ like they’re getting work done. So while work updates have their value in keeping tracking of progress, they can become a contrived performance, which instead causes more inefficiencies,” Ngerng said.
The impulsive need for Taiwanese employers to monitor their employees is evident in the archaic punch-in, punch-out system. Most employers state that it’s a labor law requirement to record work hours for the sake of labor insurance, but many have also taken advantage of this law to monitor workers and penalize them.
In some cases, workers have their pay deducted for every 10 minutes of tardiness. Government institutions like the National Taiwan Museum require facial recognition for punching in, a former employee told me. “I couldn’t even wear a different pair of glasses,” she said.
Taiwanese startups tend to be more lenient, but they’re not radically different. Most new media companies set a limit on the work-from-home days (one to four days per month).
High-growth startups like CakeResume have no remote work policy. Wei Cheng Hsieh, chief operating officer at CakeResume, explained that speed is critical for an early-age startup and it’s difficult to keep up with momentum while managing a remote team. The lack of experience in remote management is also a concern. He would, however, consider making changes as his team grows.
The cultural stigma in remote work largely lies in a misconception that telecommuting is simply an employee benefit. This is not only wrong, it’s close-minded.
For employers, offering remote work would expand the talent pool exponentially. In Taiwan, . Wage stagnation is a huge factor contributing to Taiwan’s brain drain, but employers are not looking outward either. The cost of hiring a foreign employee leaves companies with minimal incentive: either pay extra to get them an Alien Resident Certificate, or pay 20-percent taxes for foreign contractors.
One of my close friends, Srivatsa Ray, has worked remotely for over a decade and consulted numerous U.S. tech companies. The term “remote work” has a bad ring to it, Ray said. He prefers to call it “distributed work,” emphasizing that “talent knows no geopolitical borders.”
But even if Taiwanese companies want to make a digital transformation, the infrastructure is lacking and government regulations burdensome. While the world is going cashless, Taiwan’s everyday tech progress is stalled by bureaucracy.
Still a cash-dominant society, Taiwan is years behind on electronic payments. PayPal, a global payment service provider, due to outdated regulations. because of transportation regulations meant to stifle competition.
Something as basic as banking is so dreadful in Taiwan that . Opening a bank account is an hours-long ordeal, excluding the wait in line. Online banking interface is abhorrent, if not utterly useless. Incorporating a business takes three hours in Singapore, and three months in Taiwan.
As impressive as Taiwan’s Covid-19 response is, the country might have missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to undergo drastic transformation.
We’re now celebrating the return of normalcy in Taiwan, but life was never disrupted to a point where we were forced to change or take on a new work model. We stay content with the old normal, the “small happiness” that Murakami has ever so deeply etched into Taiwanese culture.
Countries that are struggling now might come out of the pandemic with a reformed workplace ecosystem, leaving Taiwan in its comfort zone, still dancing to its small triumphs.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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