Communication: the ‘fifth mode of transport’

With high stress levels and long working hours, is it still sensible for people to spend hours commuting to the office? Norman Baker, the transport minister, argues that organisations should adopt a more flexible approach to working hours and locations.

Britain is the commuting capital of Europe. On average, each of us spends the equivalent of one working day every fortnight travelling to and from work – twice as long as the Italians, and one-third more than the Spanish.

Over recent decades, people have moved further away from their place of work – and become more reliant on cars – as they have grown more prosperous. The RAC Foundation has calculated that, of the 25 million UK people who commute to a fixed place of work each day, 18 million go by car – and, of course, a large majority of those journeys take place during the morning and evening rush hours.

Norman Baker, transport minister

However, we pay a high price for adhering to such a rigid and ultimately unsustainable work pattern. Longer journeys and rising congestion are not only economically wasteful and environmentally damaging, they also have a significant impact on workers’ stress levels, health and performance.

Happily, increasing numbers of businesses and employers are discovering that we no longer have to work 9am to 5pm, five days a week, in a city-centre office, to be productive. By adopting smarter, more flexible working practices and reconsidering the travel arrangements of staff, businesses can reduce costs, reduce their environmental footprint and improve output. Increasingly, cutting-edge businesses are allowing more staff to work from home or staggering shifts so that employees can avoid peak commuting times.

I want every company and employer to realise that, alongside road, rail, air and water, there is a fifth key dimension for transport – and that is communication. Communicating in smarter ways can remove the need for travel altogether. New broadband video-conferencing technologies allow people to have “virtual” meetings and to work remotely.

Adopting smarter ways of working means that we can start working more to our own timetable and not to the fixed timetable of tradition, which demands that everyone travels at exactly the same time, on the most congested and overcrowded parts of the network. These changes are vital if we are to reduce congestion and carbon emissions, and improve our quality of life.

Government itself is changing to reflect the smarter working agenda. For example, the Cabinet Office has developed guidance for civil-service travel which makes clear that the first consideration should always be whether or not travel is necessary at all. The Department for Work and Pensions has launched a consultation on flexible working and parental leave.

At the Department for Transport, we are using the Olympics as a catalyst for staff to work and travel differently. To reduce pressure on London’s transport network during the Games, staff are being encouraged to work remotely, or use video-conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings.

I am also the first transport minister to have official responsibilities for alternatives to travel. Back in April, I launched a call for evidence to find out what employers are already doing on alternatives to travel and I’ve been encouraged by many of the responses and organisations I have met as part of this process.

Winchester City Council’s use of IT, for example, enables three-quarters of its staff to work at least partly from home. This meant that the council was able to operate effectively during the snow last winter with only 10% of staff in the office. Another good example is the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, which is using video-conferencing technology to improve access to courses for students across eight different universities.

Gradually, these changes are beginning to have a real impact. The number of people working from home in Britain rose by more than 100,000 between 2006 and 2009. TUC research found that average commuting times fell by almost five minutes between 2006 and 2008, and that the percentage of businesses allowing staff to work from home has grown sixfold in recent years.

To help build on this foundation, the department is seeking a partner to work with public sector organisations promoting alternatives to business travel and commuting. Operating from July 1 2011 to the end of March 2012, a grant of £70,000 is being made available to the successful bidder.

Employers can also find more information about smarter travelling approaches, including case studies, on the National Business Travel Network website. The guidance was developed in collaboration with 14 major businesses from across the country.

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