When Amanda asked a colleague to bring her laptop home from their tech-company office, anticipating that Taipei was about to join the ranks of global cities suddenly working remotely, managers refused to release it. She told him to grab it anyway, and soon enough the Taiwanese capital was placed under restrictions amid a shock coronavirus outbreak. Her company soon sent an office-wide email saying that 50% of staff would be staying home.
“But it still had reminders that working from home means you are working at home and your equipment must be connected at all times, and you’re expected to work eight hours and this is not a holiday,” she says.
“There’s not a lot of trust.”
Taiwan has recorded more than 1,400 cases of the Kent Covid-19 variant since Friday, the first large outbreak the island has experienced since the pandemic began. On Wednesday the whole island was put on alert level 3 of a four-tier system, which includes people being asked to work remotely where possible. It has caught people unaware, and is forcing businesses to address a deeply entrenched culture of presenteeism, which demands that people must show up to be counted.
“Taiwanese work culture is incapable of trusting that its employees can work effectively from home,” says the Taipei writer Kathy Cheng, who collects anecdotes of various attempts at or refusals to allow working from home.
There are many instances where working from home is not viable, such as in Taiwan’s dominant manufacturing industry, and the issue often disproportionately affects lower paid and more vulnerable workers. The government says it does not want to impose a lockdown, and in the absence of a government order, companies that should be able to switch to remote working have struggled to develop concrete plans, or have instead implemented strict monitoring at work.
Some have resisted entirely, and on Taipei’s first working day under level 3 there was still a significant number of commuters.
“After the pandemic situation got serious in Taipei (and many companies have already started working from home), management still insisted it’s safe to commute in to the office,” says one woman who works for a leading apparel manufacturer.
One woman says her HR representative claimed that employees couldn’t be trusted to work from home; another reports that their managers suggested snap polls to test whether people were at their desks; others have been told to enable GPS-tagging of their location when working from home. The intense distrust and resistance in the middle of a health crisis has drawn frustration.
“It is unfortunate, that over the last 18 months or so while the pandemic raged outside of Taiwan’s borders, that companies in general haven’t actively tried to develop contingencies and strategies for a transition to remote work,” writes James Bell, founder of a Taipei food company.
The level 3 alert encourages businesses to facilitate flexible work, but no financial or childcare support has been announced for parents, even after schools were ordered to close.
Amanda, who did not want her real name published, appreciates her employer’s efforts to send workers home, but says there is no flexibility for employees who have children needing homeschooling, or for those who live close to the office and can avoid public transport. The division of who should come in and who should stay at home was also left to departments.
“Some are asking us to come in half the week; some are doing one week on, one week off … you’re just mixing people willy nilly,” she says, adding concerns about ventilation in the sealed, air-conditioned building.
Taiwan is likely to see further restrictions imposed if the outbreak isn’t contained soon, and health experts have raised concerns that authorities and the population – having lived mostly without Covid for so long – are not aware of the most recent information about how it is transmitted.
Not all businesses are struggling with the arrangements, however. Law firm Winkler Partners immediately closed to the public on Monday and said most staff would be working from home. Tern Bicycles’ Taiwan office went into working-from-home mode two weeks ago when cases started to rise, with its sales director, Matthew Davis, saying it had largely ironed out the kinks after taking similar precautions in early 2020.
“We’ve got about 60 employees, a mixture of about 80% local staff and 20% international … It’s a challenge for everybody to get used to the different environment and switch to online-only communication,” he says. “[But] the bigger thing was biting the bullet and making the decision.”
Davis, who has lived in Taiwan for 16 years, says the culture of presenteeism was not just imposed from the top, but he hoped the current situation might prompt mass cultural change.
“Our focus is always on employee output and capability, not physical presence … Our belief is that’s the way forward and how to get and retain the best people. Maybe there’s some efficiencies in this that lead to better work-life balance.”