Lessons on the Korean Culture and Workplace

I’m in Seoul, South Korea, with Korean gas company Samchully, helping to design their new headquarters building. This is my second trip to Korea, and each has been a pleasurable, humbling experience. In addition to having serious flashbacks from the movie Lost in Translation, it has been fascinating to be embedded in a business that is truly Asian.

With the ceremonial guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace in northern Seoul

The incredible cast of HOK people working on this project includes Ken Drucker (NY), Josh Schroeder (Hong Kong), James Mallory (NY), Phillip Luse (NY), Seung Lee (NY), Neil McClelland (NY) and Claire Whitehill (NY). I would be remiss to forget our fearless “programming document translators” out of DC: Sunhwa Son and Jeong Hwa Jo.

Thanks to this project, we learned that HOK has 14 fluent Korean speakers, mostly in New York and Washington, DC, but also in Los Angeles and Chicago. HOK also has employees, not all of them sitting in Asia, who are fluent in several Asian languages. This includes speakers of Chinese (41), Japanese (14), Malaysian (4), Tagalog–Philippines (5), Taiwanese (1), Vietnamese (1) and Bahasa–Indonesia (2).

During this last trip, Ken Drucker and I ran into Larry Malcic (London) and Chris Yoon (London) pitching on a project for a different company. Yes, it is a small, small world.

Culture Shocks

While in Seoul, I have experienced many culture shocks:

  • I was the only blonde for miles yet never felt uncomfortable or like I stood out.
  • The streets are spotless in Seoul, yet this is a city of 10 million people. I can tell you that New York City, which is roughly 8 million people, is significantly less pristine.
  • People on the streets are very well-dressed and well-spoken. They have a great fashion sense and few are overweight.
  • Women are a minority when it comes to senior positions in many organizations. Yet Korea is about to elect its first female president.
  • Though the sense of hierarchy is strong, collaboration and agreement of the whole is essential for decision making.
  • Handshakes involve one hand on an elbow and the other hand shaking to be more “honorable.” Bowing has many forms for different situations: slight bow, 45-degree angle bow, nodding bow, etc. This takes practice to get right. I still look clumsy trying.
  • We didn’t see a lot of bikes but public transportation is good.
  • Most of the street signage was in Korean and English. Stores were very international. In some areas, from the outside we could have been in New York City … OK, maybe Koreatown.
  • Gangnam is an actual district where people actually dance Gangnam style.
  • Being a pescatarian is not normal. People looked at me like I had two heads when I tried to explain that I eat only fish and vegetables. There are few Korean dishes that don’t involve pork, chicken or beef. I would have been in trouble if I didn’t eat fish.
  • Coffee shops – and not just Starbucks – are EVERYWHERE. We learned from Chris Yoon that coffee shops are considered a “draw” for buildings and coffee shop owners are given a break on rent. I suppose the logic is that once you’re in a building for coffee, you’re more likely to buy earmuffs, chocolate or a chair.
  • A Korean massage is not relaxing.

Jogyesa Buddhist Temple in Seoul

The Korean Workplace

Working on this project for Samchully has taught me about how people work in Korea. I’m probably biased by our excellent client, but here’s what I have learned so far:

  • The chairman makes all the decisions. There is a clear leader, though he takes advice from many people.
  • Impromptu space is not necessary – it was value engineered out on day one! Collaboration occurs more formally and in conference rooms.
  • Work at home is not officially supported. Mobile work is supported and the technology is excellent. Yet because people are often working in groups, the office is the most convenient place to be. Also, being in front of the boss is important. If you’re away from the office, you’re probably on a trip with your boss.
  • Employees wear uniforms. There is a summer and a winter uniform, keeping the answer of “what to wear to work” pretty simple. Many companies also have a song. One of our clients sang Samchully’s song for us. It sounded like a university fight song.
  • Open offices, even for senior-level people, are acceptable. Bench seating for staff is typical. I saw lots of people in open offices – more than we typically see in a US office, where people are more mobile. That said, you could hear a pin drop. There weren’t any loudmouths using a speaker phone. People were super-considerate.
  • Food is central in business and personal life. Sharing meals with people is critical for negotiating and for building trust. As the locations of many impromptu meetings, the cafeteria and café spaces are particularly important.
  • Conference spaces are bigger than those in the US or Europe because the average size of meetings is larger.
  • When meeting a client, it’s important to allow for time for the “after meeting.” This is when additional negotiations and important bonding happen. I realized that our typical conferencing ratios did not apply!

If asked to name the single most impressive thing about my visits to Korea, I would say the extreme hospitality of the people. We were respected for what we do and treated like royalty. Who could ask for more?

Gyeongbokgung Palace in northern Seoul

6 Comments
  1. December 19th, 2012 - 1:29 pm
    Corinne Drobot said:

    Thanks for sharing, Leigh! What an incredible experience.

  2. December 19th, 2012 - 8:11 pm
    Truddy said:

    Hi Leigh… That’s very interesting. We also had the pleasure of meeting the Sanchully team in Hong Kong while we were trying to pitch for ID works. I believe the spirit of HOK has shone through our various offices!

  3. December 20th, 2012 - 12:30 am
    Yunsoo Kim said:

    Fairly accurate assessment. Recommend to go outside of Seoul if you have not.

  4. December 20th, 2012 - 9:20 am
    N. Thexton said:

    Thanks for sharing – this is fascinating!

  5. January 16th, 2013 - 2:03 pm
    Antonia Cardone said:

    Great post Leigh. I think it’s so important to document our first/early impressions becsaue they sometimes fade really quickly with repeated exposure…having been to many Asian countries, I wish I had done so more often!

  6. January 16th, 2013 - 4:58 pm
    Maron Demissie said:

    Thanks for the insight! I am especially curious about the uniform and company song. A very interesting way to build a sense of connectedness and unity.

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