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.
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.