Flexible working: What does the Eddington transport study mean for HR?

Sir Rod Eddington is best known for his involvement with the airline industry, but earlier this month the former chief executive of British Airways was in the headlines for his ideas on how to reduce road vehicle congestion.

His study, which was commissioned by the Treasury and the Department for Transport, recommended a number of solutions, including road pricing, where drivers are charged more to use roads at busy times. Within a matter of days chancellor Gordon Brown had announced in his Pre-Budget Report that fuel duty was to rise by 1.25p per litre.

Congestion charges

There is no doubt driving is going to get more expensive and businesses and their employees who travel to work each day will be footing the bill.

In the wake of the Eddington report, Steve Collie, national transport chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses, warned that most drivers using the road for business reasons are unable to change their travel patterns regardless of the threat of tolls.

“Tackling congestion is welcome but charging them for this access will hit firms very hard,” he said.

Faced with this scenario, a lobbying group called Work Wise which launched in May, has been vocal in encouraging businesses to embrace flexible working as one way of negating the effects of overcrowding on the roads.

Working flexibly

Chief executive Phil Flaxton believes more organisations should consider offering employees the option of remote working, working from home, compressed hours and staggered starts. This would not only reduce congestion but help retain staff and improve their work-life balance.

“People are fed up with sitting in a jam on the M25 or having only standing space on the train,” he said. “Increasingly, employees will be requesting the option of working flexibly.”

According to Flaxton, about 3.6 million out of the UK’s 28 million workers work flexibly. He believes this figure could be increased to 50% of the working population in five years.

The campaign has the support of the TUC, the CBI, BT and technology lobby group the IT Forum Foundation. This is because, said Flaxton, technologies, such as broadband, the internet and videoconferencing, are now well-established and freeing people to work from home just as efficiently as they would in an office.

But employers who hand out flexible working privileges freely should beware, warned Phillip Lynch from flexible working consultancy Workforce Logistics.

Organisations must approach the issue scientifically, if not they could lose customers. One company put its employees on flexi-time and found that no-one was servicing important US customers who started making online enquiries later in the day after everyone had gone home.

By looking at the demands of the workplace and then overlapping working hours on top of this, companies can offer flexible conditions and staggered starts and cover all the hours required, said Lynch.

But employers who allow their staff to work from home will have to think about how they measure their productivity. Whereas traditionally employees in the workplace are gauged by their ability to be in the office for 35 hours a week, home workers are judged by their output.

Car share schemes

Organisations weighing up the pros and cons of flexible working could join an increasing number of employers who run car share schemes.

At BT, environment manager Simon Paul said the company started its scheme about a year ago and has registered more than 1,000 participants in the company.

BT uses web-based software which allows users to input their postcode and be matched with drivers taking a similar car journey to and from work. Users have the option to be matched solely with drivers from their own company, or to be put in touch with drivers from other organisations using the system.

Paul said the car share scheme is part of a wider corporate social responsibility programme at the company. “The scheme has many benefits: providing both substantial savings for employees but also helping to reduce emissions,” he said.

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