As a construction law firm with diverse international clients and projects, Watt Tieder’s attorneys work in countries all over the globe. This article is but one of a continuing series of articles attempting to relate lessons—both professional and cultural—that Watt Tieder derives from its travel.
Over the past three years Watt Tieder’s presence in Asia as a top-tier international construction law firm blossomed, particularly in the Republic of Korea (“ROK”). Watt Tieder represents several global contractors based in Korea and enjoys valuable opportunities working with and learning from these companies both in Seoul as well as at project sites throughout the ROK. Most recently, the authors spent several weeks in the Republic of Korea, primarily at a project site and at a small family owned hotel in Pyeongtaek. Suffice to say the authors found the ROK and its citizens impressive.
The Three “E”s: Efficiency, Economy, And Environment
The ROK is a small mountainous peninsula nation with an area of 38,691 mi² – about 1/5 the size of California. Yet the ROK has a population of over 51 million, with over 25 million people in the Seoul metropolitan area alone. ROK’s population density is 505 people per square kilometer (1,308 people per square mile), ten times the global average. South Korea is the most developed country in East Asia according to the Human Development Index, has the world’s eighth highest median household income (highest in Asia), and is one of the most ethnically homogenous societies in the world ( 99% of the population is of Korean descent). These environmental, economic, and cultural factors eddy throughout Korean society. The effects can be seen in the emphasis throughout Korean society on: 1) efficiency and economy; 2) the environment; and 3) a deep sense of collectivism, unity and teamwork. Senior Partner Ned Parrott and Associate Christine Lee experienced these characteristics of day-to-day Korean life firsthand during their work trips to Korea, particularly in Pyeongtaek.
Everyone Is A Farmer
The Korean commitment to efficiency, economy, and the environment can first be seen in the efficient use of all available land, whether public or private, for crops and gardens. During our trips to Pyeongtaek, we were struck by the city’s efficient use of public land, as well as residents’ use of private land, to grow produce. Nearly all arable land is plotted as a productive vegetable garden. Median strips are filled with rows of corn. Private homeowners use their yards as vegetable gardens growing everything from tomatoes, leafy lettuce, parilla leaves (similar to the Japanese herb called shiso), zucchini, peppers and more. The use of arable land for a grass lawn, as is typical in some parts of the world, is practically non-existent. Ornamental plants and flowers are shunned in favor of peppers and squash.
The emphasis on personal vegetable gardens stems from the fact that only 22% of the land in South Korea is arable, due largely to the mountainous terrain throughout much of the country. The scarcity of arable land combined with the nation’s large population (relative to the physical size of the country) and high population density requires maximizing the efficient use of available land – even if such “farming” takes place on a tiny plot of personal land. Why drive to a grocery store to buy imported vegetables when they are available at arm’s reach? Everyone is a farmer.
Koreans Are Conservative
Don’t worry . . . we’re not talking politics! Rather, we are referring to Korea’s devotion to efficiency, economy, and the environment. These attributes are on display both at the Pyeongtaek Project site, as well as the small family hotel where the authors stayed. The hotel, for example, provides drinking water to guests by a single water filtration tank located on each floor. Guests fill steel containers for limitless and free cold clean water. This obviates the manufacture, shipping, and disposal of plastic bottles so common in other countries. The hotel also employs the functional equivalent of a movement sensor in each guest room to activate the power supply. Place your room key in the slot and power is available. No key means no power (electricity) in the room. This system makes it impossible for lights, television, air conditioner, etc. to be left on while the guest is away. This simple system has proved very effective in conserving energy use. Another interesting characteristic of the hotel is its supply of a single iron and a single microwave in the common area of each floor (next to the water cooler) for the guests’ use. For this small family owned hotel the logic was obvious. Why buy 30 microwaves and irons when 3 will suffice?
Another example of Korean efficiency and commitment to the environment is evident at the project site cafeteria. It is typical in Korea for employers to provide workers with three meals a day as part of their compensation package. The cafeteria provided three nutritious meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – daily to all of the contractor’s employees on site. Zero time and resources were expended in traveling to remote sites. The use of all re-usable items for serving meals, such as metal bowls, cups, dishes, and utensils and overall very minimal packaging or waste further reflects environmental awareness. Koreans are conservative.
We Are Family
Korea is a culturally homogeneous and collectivist society placing great emphasis on unity and teamwork. The authors were impressed by the use of consensus based decision making. Much debate and many voices are heard before an important decision is made. The hospitality shown throughout the company gives all associated with the company efforts a sense of family. The authors were personally ferried to and from the site and airport (and in one instance to the doctor) by project management. Daily meals in the company cafeteria also foster camaraderie, unity, and teamwork. Finally, all employees are encouraged to take a one-hour break or nap directly after lunch. We felt like family.
While the ROK has not cornered the market they certainly put to great use the maxim: “Less is more.”
Also notable was the daily power nap that the employees typically enjoyed at their desks immediately after consuming lunch. Upon observing firsthand the ability of such naps to recharge the employees, thereby increasing overall productivity, Ned has been considering lobbying the firm to institute a firm-wide midday power nap policy.