With the rising cost of fuel, more vehicles clogging up the roads in the UK, and a struggling rail system, the grind of the daily commute will get much worse for employees travelling to and from work.
Last December, the Department for Transport revealed the results of a report it commissioned from former British Airways boss Sir Rod Eddington, which forecast that by 2025, 13% of car traffic will be using congested roads (compared to 8% in 2003), costing businesses more than £6bn a year in time spent travelling.
The department also reported that the average UK worker commutes 2,912 miles a year, and that road traffic has grown by 81% since 1980.
Eddington’s report made a number of recommendations – many of which could hit employers hard as commuters face higher travel costs. It proposed the introduction of a national road pricing scheme and, during peak times, a heavy congestion charge. He also advocated that air and train companies be charged for their relative emissions of carbon, which would push up commuter fares.
Aside from the practical difficulties this could present for commuters, employers would need to look out for the impact this may have on staff productivity and morale in future, warns Edmund King, executive director of independent motoring body the RAC Foundation.
“Most of the workforce race to get to work in the morning at the same time, adding to road congestion and overcrowding on public transport. If every employee worked just one day from home per week, this would have a huge impact in reducing road traffic congestion by 20%,” King says.
Stressful journeys often affect staff performance, he adds. “Employees who suffer constant delays caused by sitting in gridlocked traffic are not going to be in the right frame of mind when they eventually do turn up to work.”
In response to Eddington’s recommendations, King urges employers to consider adopting flexible working practices. “Not only is it healthier for employees and the environment, but employers would also be financially better off, meaning a more contented workforce,” he says.
Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit initiative, has launched a five-year campaign to promote the wider adoption of ‘smarter’ working practices, such as home, remote and mobile working. It aims to increase the number of people benefiting from smarter working from about five million to 14 million within five years.
“The average UK worker spends 47 working days a year commuting – almost one additional working day per week – and this is on top of the UK having one of the longest working weeks in Europe,” says David Lennan, chairman of Work Wise UK.
He believes that working from nine to five for five days a week at a central location, coupled with having to travel many miles to attend meetings, is largely unnecessary considering the technology available. “This rigid work structure, which is mainly dictated by culture and nothing else, is wasteful in terms of time and resources, damaging in terms of the environmental impact, and harmful in that it affects stress levels and health,” Lennan says.
So how can HR get involved in preparing the workforce to become more flexible in anticipation of Eddington’s recommendations being put into practice?
Opportunity for HR
According to Lennan, this is a great opportunity for HR to drive the organisation’s thinking forward on smarter working practices. “Commuting and travel are fast becoming not just an HR headache, but major business issues,” he says.
Some employers are already looking at changing the way staff come to work, both from an environmental and personal health perspective. Furniture retailer Ikea, for example, gave each of its 9,000 employees a bicycle for Christmas. It also offered staff 15% off travel tickets to encourage them to use public transport rather than drive.
In the public sector, Worcestershire County Council introduced a flexible working policy five years ago, including a move to premises with a smaller car park. The council asked employees to reduce their car trips to work to once a week, either through car sharing, using public transport, walking, cycling or working from home. It also introduced hot desks into its County Hall headquarters.
“We could argue that it is the employees’ choice how they get to work, and how far they are prepared to travel to work, but as an employer, we are the primary cause of peak-hour congestion, in that we ask our staff to be at the office for a certain time and we ask them to stay until a certain time,” says Emilie van de Graaff, safe and sustainable travel manager at the council.
To launch the travel plan, it held a series of information days where staff could receive advice about personal journey planning and flexible working. They reacted positively to the initiative, says van de Graaff. “Those employees who are able to take advantage of the scheme are very positive, citing higher productivity at home, where they are not disturbed by phones or e-mails as often, and also they like the fact they don’t have to spend time travelling to and from the office,” she adds.
The Association for Commuter Transport (ACT), which promotes the business benefits of sustainable travel initiatives, says programmes like this could even become a tool for attracting new recruits. “Increasingly, leading businesses are adopting smarter working practices to assist in both attracting new and retaining existing staff, while demonstrating improvements in productivity,” says Dr Colin Black, chairman of ACT. He advises employers to consider initiatives such as providing facilities for storing bicycles, showers and changing facilities, and managing parking on a ‘needs’ basis. These could be brought together into a corporate travel plan.
“Employers quickly learn that staff are willing to adopt travel alternatives if they provide support and help to make it easier,” says Black. “The full business benefits will only be achieved if smarter working practices are implemented in parallel.”
Van de Graaff believes the Worcestershire County Council’s travel plan will ultimately help it to retain staff, rather than actively push them away. “Staff are motivated to stay with an employer that helps them to live more flexibly, reduce their time spent travelling to work, and may well stay with that employer for longer,” she says.
So while rising travel costs and concerns about the environment may put staff off commuting in the future, long-term investments in flexible working could benefit staff health, morale and your employer brand.
Case study: Accenture
Consulting company Accenture believes it has a corporate social responsibility to be more environmentally aware, so it decided to launch flexible working into its UK offices in 2001.
“The majority of Accenture’s carbon dioxide emissions come from travel – emissions that are sometimes necessary for the operation of our business, but also contribute to climate change,” says Isabel Naidoo, UK corporate citizenship lead at Accenture.
“We encourage our employees to explore other options around business travel, including video conferencing facilities and, where possible, using public transport.”
Accenture creates awareness of the benefits of cycling to work, has showers in its offices and storage facilities. The company also monitors team satisfaction by conducting regular employee surveys. “The findings have shown that our employees who work flexibly are happier and more productive,” says Naidoo.
“Every activity carried out by Accenture has some impact on the environment. We have an obligation to minimise this and to implement a programme of continuous environmentally friendly practices,” she adds. This commitment involves all of the company’s stakeholders, including its clients.
“It makes business sense as new recruits, employees, potential clients and the wider community demand it. People want to work for and work with a company that respects the environment,” Naidoo says.
The greener way to get to work
- Introduce flexible working slowly, allowing staff to spend a few hours working from home, then gradually reduce the amount of time they have to work in the office.
- If you don’t want to adopt flexible working practices then think about creating a green travel plan.
- HR should conduct a basic mapping exercise to find out where all their staff live and the routes they take to work.
- Think about devising a car-sharing scheme, puttingon a mini-bus for staff or encouraging employees tocycle to work.
Source: Edmund King, executive director, RAC Foundation