8 hours only: firm calls time on office taboo
Sunny Han routinely worked more than 12 hours a day at Asustek Computer to manage the Taiwanese PC maker's marketing and publicity machine. He would often leave the office after 10pm, joining throngs of white-collar workers in Taipei and other Asian cities where, while the written rules call for eight-hour shifts, the unspoken rule is to show loyalty by staying into the night.
The issue of overwork in Taiwan is a hot topic now, catalysing protests by labour groups to draw attention to fatigue, illness and the suspected death last year of an IT company employee. Plus, Taiwanese companies rarely pay overtime. The government's Council of Labour Affairs has pledged more oversight.
Han, after nine years at Asustek, left in 2008 to join TeamChem, inventor and producer of conductive film, solder mass and other materials for mobile phones. The small firm has NT$30 million (HK$8 million) in annual revenue. It's profitable and has a surprisingly low staff turnover rate for a hi-tech company.
Todd Yeh, who founded the company in 2001 and named it TeamChem to emphasise teamwork and team spirit, had knocked off daily at about 5pm when he worked for a materials firm in the United States.
He and Han, TeamChem's general manager, make their 17 employees quit at 5.30pm each day to ensure they report to work the next day with the energy to excel in their research, development and factory jobs. The workers arrive at 8am and get a one-hour lunch break. Quitting time is 5pm, and they get half an hour's grace to leave the building.
Yeh, who is chairman of the company, follows suit to make sure he's at his creative best the next day. And Han, interviewed below, leaves at the same hour to spend some quality time with his four-year-old son.
How do you enforce the strict hours?
We tell them we hope they won't work overtime: 5.30pm at the latest. At 5.30pm we turn out the lights and cut the air conditioning. You've got to go. We won't buy you a boxed dinner [a perk Taiwanese companies frequently give in lieu of overtime].
Why do you insist on these working hours?
Todd thought that Taiwanese people work too hard. Taiwan has a lot of working fathers who don't see their children. If their wives work too, then they've got to leave the children with day care centres. It's pitiful.
If you never get off work, your effectiveness will decline and there's never any way to think creatively. Later there would be no way to come up with ideas. So our company has this kind of atmosphere.
What about the working hours at Asustek?
The earliest I would leave work at Asustek was 10pm. No one would leave on time. Not even the bosses would go. Once there was a meeting and I stayed till 1am. My wife was pregnant then. I thought of a problem, which is that I'd never be with my child. On the weekends I'd sleep really late. I'd be tired.
Did you ever question your bosses at Asustek about the long hours?
There's no way. For Taiwanese people that's a taboo at work. I believe if you asked a lot of people, everyone would say the same thing, that they've never brought it up.
Why do other companies want their workers to put in free overtime?
I personally think other bosses see employees as family. And then your future is intertwined with the company's, so you need to make more of a contribution. You have an obligation to contribute yourself to the company: only if the firm is doing well will you do well.
Overtime shows you're hard-working and very meticulous.
What does TeamChem require from 8am to 5.30pm in return for the standard hours?
During the day you need to be effective and get things done fast. If you spend time drinking coffee or chatting, then you can't finish your work; it's going to be delayed and then you end up in overtime.
We don't have to remind them. They already know that after tea and a toilet break it's time to work. It's not like two or three people will go out to chat and smoke. But they eat lunch and rest from noon to 1pm. They have a lot of energy.
How's staff turnover?
It's very stable. Hardly anyone quits.
How does TeamChem stack up against competitors?
A curious thing about our company is that we have just 17 people. But the materials I'm researching are usually done by factories with two or three thousand people, and we can compete with them on the same level. Taiwan doesn't have any of those factories. Our peers are in Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Given that you encourage conditions to foster creativity, what have your staff invented?
We have a client with a red mobile phone. It wanted the printed circuit board inside to be red as well. Why? Because when you take it in for service it all looks pretty. But it's hard to get that colour inside. Other companies worked hard but couldn't crack it. We spent four months developing a red solder mass.
There's another mobile phone with a white case, prettier than other white cases. That client wanted it very white but not transparent where you can see through it. So in addition to the white original material we added a layer of aluminium powder, then another layer of white original material. There's no way to see through it. But was very hard to make three layers and keep it all so slim.