I’m certainly no historian, but I’d suspect we can thank the industrial revolution for our current commuting predicament.
As people started to leave their farms and homesteads to look for work in the growing towns; in the factories and down the mines, people were no longer working where they lived.
A faster horse…
Over time, developments in personal transport saw the horse and cart, or bicycle, make way for trains, trams and eventually, cars. It allowed people to live further and further away, leading to the suburban developments we see today. A journey that would take hours now took minutes.
Paradoxically, this growth in transport efficiency has actually led us backwards, to a point where people once again spend hours every day just getting to work and back. In 2015 the average commute in the UK was 57.1 minutes. There are too many people trying to get into every major city on the planet at roughly the same time every day.
Longer periods traveling to and from work have therefore become an accepted part of many people’s daily routine.
“It makes life difficult but it’s become the norm,” said Nick Seymour, a solicitor from Exeter, who spends at least three hours a day traveling by car and train to and from Bristol.
As someone who lives at the edge of Cardiff, getting the bus to work in the morning can mean at least an hour is taken up traveling each way to work. Cycling cuts that in half, but I still lose time getting changed and getting settled before my brain can even think about what I need to do first. It feels like such a monumental waste.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just time that is being lost. Time, that most precious commodity that you really cannot buy, but you can quantify. In Cardiff, the average cost of being stuck in congestion works out at around £940 per person, per year.
Traffic agency Inrix analysed traffic and congestion in 1,064 cities across 38 countries worldwide, including Cardiff. It worked out that the average cost to Cardiff’s drivers of being sat in their own congestion was £939 per year.
What is especially galling is that much of this congestion is the product of a rather outdated notion that you need to be present to be productive. You do need to be present, but being present and being present are two very different things. The bag of meat you call a body can be anywhere, but it doesn’t always mean that the brain controlling it is switched on.
Offices are particularly distracting places. Your time is rarely your own, there’s usually someone or something else whose needs are always somehow more important or more urgent than yours; there’s usually noise; a string of invariably pointless meetings that could just as easily have achieved the same outcome with an email. If you could just take yourself away somewhere quiet, perhaps you could do that work you’ve been trying to do.
More to life…
Fortunately, there does appear to be another way for many of us, particularly if you work in an office. With broadband internet there is often no practical reason why many of us cannot work from somewhere closer to home, or even at home.
There’s a new revolution taking place –one that requires no travel at all. Some call it remote working, some call it “smart working”, but it ultimately it means employees choosing when and from where they work.
If you have a laptop, a phone and an internet connection, theoretically you could work from pretty much anywhere, at a time that is mutually beneficial for you and the business you are in. If you have children and need to take them to or pick them up from school, you can work around them, or if you have other caring responsibilities you can work around those duties; if you are laid up with a broken leg, you can work from home. If you need to really concentrate on a piece of work, but the office is usually really noisy and full of distractions, work from somewhere else.
Crucially, it means you’re not travelling to roughly the same place as the rest of the city between 7:30am and 9:00am every weekday. Perhaps the end of rush-hour traffic, toxic air and spiralling transport costs is in sight after all?
Naturally, there are benefits to business too. If desks are occupied less, they can be used by more people, as and when they are needed. You may only need half the number of desks that you have in staff numbers. Fewer desks means less space; less space will usually mean less rent. Sickness absences tend to be lower and staff will likely feel more empowered by being able to manage their own schedule, fitting work into their life, rather than fitting their life around work.
Of course, there will be jobs that need to be done at a specific location, particularly those in hospitals, factories and shops, but there’s quite a lot of people in Cardiff working in industries that would lend itself to remote working. According to the 2011 census, which is admittedly a bit old, we have:
|Information and communication||6470|
|Financial and insurance activities||8471|
|Real estate activities||2301|
|Professional, scientific and technical activities||10270|
|Administrative and support service activities||6766|
|Public administration and defence; compulsory social security||12508|
That’s quite a large group of people from a pool of 159,614. This could be 46,786 people who aren’t sat in a queue of rush-hour traffic. Tens of thousands fewer cars on the roads at peak times, cleaner air, lower travel costs and more money staying in our pockets.
The UK Government has published a code of practice for this “smart working” malarkey, supported by a BSI specification (PAS 3000:2015). I’ve not read the code of practice –it’s £84 I’m not willing to spend, but you may wish to have a read of Jason Fried’s book, Remote: Office Not Required instead. It’s a more reasonable £12.99 from Waterstones and explains everything far better than I can.
Smart working has become more common in recent years across the private and public sectors. It can play an important part in meeting the challenge of doing more with less. New technologies support smart working by enabling more mobility of work, and legislation is encouraging flexible working and new trends in workplace design.
The code of practice is intended for use by the public, private and not-for-profit sectors and organisations of all sizes. Leaders and managers in employing organisations and people who implement smart working programmes will find it particularly useful.
How, where and what?
A shift to remote working takes a period of adjustment whether you are an employer or an employee.
For employers, you’ll need to consider how your IT is set up. Cloud services have started to spring up all over the place in recent years, with Microsoft and Google leading the charge. You could take out a corporate Office 365 subscription and move all of your applications, email and storage to their platform. You could host any of your bespoke applications from a cloud service like Microsoft’s Azure cloud, or Amazon’s EC2. You then need to consider how staff will access it, whether that is by buying laptops for everyone, or allowing them to use their own, with a stipend in their salary for buying equipment and any other adjustments they need to work safely. You’ll also want to consider a VPN service to ensure their connection to your network is secure.
Most importantly, none of this works without collaborative and communication tools, whether we are talking about Skype, Slack, Trello, Evernote, OneNote or any others that come along between and the end of the world. Without face-to-face contact, employees need to lean on other means to work together on tasks or projects.
Employees too will need to get used to the new found freedom to manage their own workload within their own time; getting used to not seeing their colleagues (this can be both good and bad, depending on how you much you like your colleagues!) and finding places that are conducive to work.
Collaborative working spaces are popping up all over the place, not least Cardiff. Coworker.com has a number of listings for Cardiff and there may be somewhere near to where you live, if you didn’t want to work at home. There are also libraries and coffee shops, providing you keep buying coffee and do your bit to support the coffee shop you are using as an office for the day.
Employees will also need to figure out what to do with the extra hours they’ll have in their day; the bus fare or petrol they’re no longer buying; and most importantly, where they can go for a ride when they choose to take a lunch break.
If you are no longer wasting an hour getting to work; an hour to get home and you’d normally take an hour for lunch…that’s three whole hours in the middle or at the end of the day with which to go cycling…