Dr Heejung Chung is a labour market and welfare state researcher and reader (Associate Professor) in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. Her research interest lies in examining different labour market patterns and outcomes across European welfare states, with a primary focus on flexibility at work, work-life balance, and job and employment insecurity. She was the principal investigator for the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance Project. Heejung sings in a soul choir and plays bass in a punk grunge band. What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Heejung, make sure you listen to the entire conversation for great insight!
Agnes Uhereczky: Could you tell listeners a little bit about your career, passion and really what lead you into this space focusing on flexible work in particular?
Heejung Chung: How can I even answer that in a couple of minutes? But, I will try! If I am going to talk about my passion in the way like the larger goal, or passion, it would be - and I guess for any sociologist - to change the narrative about what is meaningful life, what is a meaningful contribution to society. I come from a different kind of background that isn’t on my website. I come from a student movement activist background when I was at the university in Corea. And, a lot of my experiences gave me a serious criticism towards capitalism or certain modes of capitalism.
I also lived across 5 different countries. I was born in Korea, raised in the US, came back to Korea to finish my studies. I also lived in the Netherlands and Germany, I have a German husband. I have done some studies in Scotland and now based in England in the UK. One of the ways in which I saw the differences was the way through people thought about money and work. Many of the listeners might know that in the US and Korea there is a strong culture of work being privileged over everything else. There is a culture of overwork, but also a culture of pursuit of money where people need to make a lot of money. Hence a lot of the criticism was embedded in why I started to pursue further studies in sociology and in sociology at work. And, living in the Netherlands and especially but also in Germany, opened my eyes about how life can be - or how capitalism can be if you want - and how family and leisure can be privileged and how much priority people can have over those aspects rather than making money at work.
Context matters. Flexibility is not used in a vacuum.
First, flexible working, on the one hand, was to me to make a way in changing that mode of capitalism about the ideas of work. In my master thesis, I wrote that my goal is to have a society where workers have shorter and more autonomous work hours. It was a way in which I felt a solution to a lot of the societal problems and I thought that this was really prohibiting the progress of society. However, as you probably know, and as a lot of my project says, it was a relatively simplistic view of what flexibility is especially in this area in which we live in. The area of insecurity, in the era of workers’ decline in negotiation position, increased competition etc. Just normatively the era of business. Also, being an academic where control or flexibility over your work is very widespread those blurred boundaries did not necessarily mean …
Agnes: … Less work.
Heejung: Yes, and this was one of the reasons that lead me to start the WAF project.
Agnes Uhereczky: What really resonates with what you are saying is that one gets into this field, of work-life balance, I think one cannot help but very quickly become philosophical. When you scratch the surface you find much unconscious bias and cultural assumptions around work, or the definition of success. When we work with organisations, very often, how the top management defines success and the road to get there meaning overwork, lots of sacrifice and trade-offs, that is how then the next generation is going to perceive how to get there. This opens a lot of philosophical questions.
Heejung Chung: This is why when I was doing my master in Korea, and later my PhD, I was very hesitant to do work-life balance issues because it was considered to be a women’s area. I rejected the idea that because I am a woman I should be doing something around that. What really interesting - as you said - is that once you really get into it, work-life balance is really a fundamental critique or change in perceptions towards capitalism in a way. The whole basis that our society revolves around it, could be linked to our criticism towards why are we using GDP per capita as a measure of the success of a country, why do we measure profit as the success of companies. These are all intertwined together. And this is what makes this area such an exciting and interesting field and I think now a lot of scholars understand how important it is for us to actually understand some of these dynamics because it is really fundamentally thinking about what we are as a society.
Agnes: Coming to the last question that is always the same at the WorkLife HUB podcast if I could ask you to give one advice to senior leaders, managers, something that they need to be more mindful of about work-life balance or flexible work, what kind of advice would you give them?
Heejung Chung: Fist, you have to understand that especially for the newer generations, the demand for flexible working and being able to balance work with family life is huge, especially for women. And there is an increased number of men wanting to do that. The reason why they want to work flexibly is also very diverse. Leaders need to understand, that by accepting it, you are going to get actually more out of it - you are going to get this committed per hour workforce who can actually contribute to your company on a longer term much more than you would expect it otherwise.
Culture change needs to happen for flexible working to work.
This leads me to my second point which is about the idea of we need to rethink productivity and commitment. Long working hours and being in the office all the time isn’t what productivity and commitment are. We have so much scientific evidence to prove that. Especially long working hours is bad for business, the individual and society in terms of health cost etc. Especially, presenteeism in various sectors is really problematic. At Goldman Sachs, which is one of the most competitive companies in the world, the CEO stops people when they work very long hours. I was really surprised, but applauded this, because I think he understands that this is when really bad and rather disastrous choices are being made, when people just working too much. Leaders have to understand that we have to now go into a position in the next stage of work and society where productivity and commitment cannot be measured through this old way. Working shorter, but very productive hours and being able to make good choices, as well as people, being able to balance their work and private life, really make a difference in making people productive. The last thing I would say that as leaders first thing to do is to rather thinking like that you would need to do this for your workers, you need to do it for yourself.
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