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Office seating revolution spreads in Korea, and workers positive on it

May 29,2019
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From left: At the recently remodeled SK D&D Pangyo office, workers can select and reserve desirable seats through the use of a mobile app. Telephone booth at SK D&D. The_System Lab’s office lounge in Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul. [ROH KYUNG, THE _SYSTEM BOOTH]
Imagine an office with no assigned desks, where the whole floor is available.

As mobile technology dominates and working hours are reduced, offices are changing as well.

There is an old rule when it comes to having a seat in a company office. From the window to the hallway, desks have traditionally been assigned according to a hierarchical order of employees and executives. The place an employee sits shows their rank in the company.

The structure of the office has made it easy for superiors to keep a watch on the whereabouts of workers, who may at times pretend that they are working.

This long-held tradition is coming to an end.

Experts point out that merely sitting for many hours on a chair does not mean that the employee is productive. They say that companies started to reform space not for reasons of decoration but because of the mobile-dominated era and in preparation for the 52-hour workweek.

In line with the change in work processes, companies are transforming office spaces.

JoongAng Ilbo recently visited the Pangyo office of SK D&D, a real estate developer, which just completed remodeling. Architect Kim Jeong-im, the head of Seoro Architects - who designed the offices of Cheil Worldwide and Samsung’s R&D center in Woomyun-dong, central Seoul - designed the SK D&D offices.

The SK D&D office, located on the third floor of SK Eco-Hub Center in Pangyo, Gyeonggi, is 2,380 square meters (25,618 square feet) in size. The original space was laid out like a typical office in Korea, divided into spaces that matched departments.

This set up was scrapped altogether.

The space was divided into six areas with unique names, including a library, home, factory and greenhouse. Workers can select and sit wherever they want. They cannot sit in the same seat for two days in a row. Through a smartphone app, they can reserve a workstation.

“Many agreed with the fact that a working space should be changed to a place where employees can have autonomy over their work in a given amount of time rather than one where they work under surveillance,” said Lee Chi-won, an executive at SK D&D.

If a senior manager calls an employee all the time, it could reduce concentration. In the company, there are no desks solely for one person. So, where should family photos be placed? Every employee has an individual locker.

“In the locker, there is an exclusively designed box, and workers can put their belongings in the box and insert the box under the reserved seat like a drawer,” explained Kim Jeong-im. Lockers that store toothbrushes are available in the restroom.

Executive rooms are also an object of reform. The architect took the total from 10 to 1 and reduced the size from 21.9 square meters to 11.5 square meters. He designed a special desk that enables employees to do their own work and consult with others.

When cooperative work is necessary, employees can get together in the communal lounge, but private consultations can only be done in the executive room.

“The room structure itself makes it hard for workers to exchange secrets,” said Kim with a laugh.

The original office had 120 desks in total. Now, the office has 226 desks. Workers can reserve and use 162 of the seats, and the rest are the so-called hot desks which can be used freely. In the hallway, employees can temporarily work while standing.

“When the remodeled office opened on May 20, I thought that employees would not appreciate the change as their desks were removed, but after seeing their favorable reactions to the fact that they can use the third floor completely, I felt great,” said Kim.

“The company grew, and the number of employees increased, so we thought about leasing more space, but instead we reformed the original space with that money,” explained SK D&D.

The 52-hour workweek has also had an impact.

The_System Lab, an architecture studio, recently introduced an autonomous seat system as it moved its office to Seongsu-dong, eastern Seoul. For their work, a fixed seat is a must. Therefore, The_System Lab’s attempt to adopt the autonomous seating system is uncommon.

“We changed all the laptops to the most efficient ones and allowed workers to store data on the cloud, so that they will be able to choose seats every week,” said architect Kim Chan-joong, the head of the architecture studio.

“When we interview young employees, their first question is whether the 52-hour workweek is implemented,” said Kim.

He added that the 52-hour workweek became an important criteria for workers. He said that in order to give as much autonomy as possible for them to finish work on time, he changed how the space was run.

The_System Lab, at the end of last year, moved to the office at Seongsu-dong and left the original office at Bundang, Gyeonggi, as it was. Employees can work in whichever office they want. The company is planning to increase the number of offices. In addition, a 24-hour open channel showing meeting rooms in each office in real time has been made available.

There was a time when Google’s headquarters was the model office space for Korean companies.

At that time, there were so many employees from Korean companies who visited Google that Google employees immediately let Korean visitors know the best spot to take pictures.

“The way employees work is changing, and that is what matters,” said Kim.

“Schools allow students to move to different classrooms to prevent boredom, and I thought this system is the best to run a space, so I copied it,” said Kim.

Then, which seat is the most unpopular? It is right next to the team leader. Superiors do not always sit in the best place next to the window, but employees who comes early to work take the best seat. This change is thanks to the autonomous seat system.

BY HAN EUN-HWA [kim.heyu@joongang.co.kr]