When it comes to working remotely, the questions employers often ask are: can employees be trusted to work independently and will the flexible working arrangement save the business money? But this standard analysis of flextime omits a crucial extra factor: the effect of the commute upon staff. In this exclusive article, frustrated commuter David D'Souza gives his view.

This post relies on people describing their experiences. I wanted to write an inspiring post on the factors pulling us towards a bright future of flexible working. I wanted to write about a growing maturity within organisations with regards to allowing individuals choice over their environment. I wanted to write about how individuals can select an environment based around the kind of stimuli that help people to be at their very best.

Then I got stuck on a train. Then I got stuck on another train. Then I got stuck on another train. Then I got stuck on the tube.

This post is therefore about the push factor that is the creaking transport infrastructure in the UK. As research for this piece I asked my local commuter group for their views on how much of an impact disrupted train services are currently having on their lives. They came up with the following:

  • "A theoretical 35 minute train journey at each end of the working day is more dreaded and stressful than the work day itself."
  • "The delays impact the three main parts of people lives: i) work and explaining why you're always late, ii) personal as it diminishes the amount of time you spend relaxing and with your family, friends, children and lateness at getting to childcare, iii) health with the amount of stress this all creates."
  • "I routinely work through my lunch hour, so I have a buffer to compensate for delays to work."
  • "It is the physical and mental exhaustion before you even arrive at your desk."
  • "I arrive at my desk feeling as though I had 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. I am a (relatively) healthy 26 year old female. If I can't cope with it, what about those much older / less mobile?"

Average daily commuting time in UK

Commuters in London spend 75 minutes travelling on average (Source: Nutmeg Survey)

Commuting into London is like encountering a zombie army each day. A crowd of people slowly shuffling forwards with the light already extinguished from their eyes at 7am in the morning. Nobody gets into the office feeling fresh, nobody gets into the office feeling relaxed and most important of all nobody gets into the office raring to make a difference. People slump into offices. The first task of the day that pops up in your calendar will be addressed by someone sapped of energy and passion. That is a ridiculous way to run an economy. There is no competitive advantage to be gained from systematically draining your workforce of life.

As one of the quotes intelligently highlights it also isn't a sustainable way to run an economy that has at its heart an ageing workforce. Commuting is physically demanding, it is no longer a lifestyle - it is a trap. It needs solving.

At the heart of the 'flexible working/remote working' debate are two key issues that seem to dictate views.

  1. Can people be trusted to work independently?
  2. Will this save organisations money?

I am asking you to trust me that the hell of the modern commute hasn't been effectively factored into answering these questions. I offer no statistics, just the raw, visceral and unassailable horror of the Central Line. I would venture that informed answers to the questions are as follows

  1. Can people be trusted to work independently? Yes and no. It varies by individual, but then that is the case (and has always been the case) when people are working in your office too. Employing people you can only trust when under direct observation is a hugely risky tactic and employing people who flourish when given accountability seems far more sensible. Since I think it is easier to build trusting relationships with people who aren't at their wits end having spent the last hour rammed into a stranger's armpit, I'd humbly suggest helping people stay relaxed where you can - and public transport doesn't help that.
  2. Will this save organisations money? It depends on whether you think it is currently effective to be investing your salary bill on people who are reaching their desk each morning in a state of near despair - and then spending the day worrying about the return journey. So don't just factor in real estate savings - factor in productivity and well being increases.

There you go, I almost got all the way through with no statistics.

I'll leave you with just one.

On the day I finally sat down to write this post only 39% of trains provided by my local carrier (Southern Rail) were running on time. Systemic stress for hundreds of thousands of people. Putting your people through that has ethical and commercial consequences. 

Death to the commute.

David D'Souza is the Head of London for the CIPD. He is an Organisational Development Consultant and former Head of People Development for Metro Bank, the UK's first new High Street Bank in over 100 years. A speaker and blogger on both HR and progressive business practice, David has crowdsourced two bestselling HR books, the "Humane Resourced" series.


Are you a frustrated commuter tired of the daily schlep with the zombie army? Do you agree that employers can trust people to work independently? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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