Waiting for the green light

For some people, getting to and from work is the most stressful part of their working day. A survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that two million hours are wasted each week as managers struggle to get in to work.

The research also revealed that 79 per cent of managers have missed vital meetings, 17 per cent have lost business opportunities, 21 per cent reported a decline in productivity and 35 per cent told of increased levels of irritability at work, all because of transport problems.

“The survey showed that the situation is very bad,” says Petra Cook, head of public affairs at CMI. “And when people have to really fight to make their way into work, it really does not make for a good start to the day.”

The Government claims to be working hard to reduce transport problems. It released its 10-year transport plan in the summer, which outlined plans such as extending congestion charging schemes, building new roads, motorway tolls and investment in the railways, all supposedly leading to clearer roads and railways. But business and the general public are sceptical about the projected outcomes. The CBI issued a report saying the initiatives would fail to deliver sufficiently and that £250bn of public and private investment was needed over the next 10 years. “It is hard to overstate the level of business frustration on this issue,” said CBI director general, Digby Jones. We have seen some improvements but the slow pace of change is damaging business, the economy and confidence in the UK’s ability to deliver.

An NOP poll for the British Chambers of Commerce found that industry agrees with the workforce on this issue. Only one in 50 business leaders thinks the Government has an effective solution. It estimates that the failing infrastructure costs British businesses at least £15bn a year. Nearly four out of 10 companies polled said their local transport system limits their growth potential, with three quarters saying transport delays increase their operational costs and 39 per cent saying it hinders recruitment.

Numerous other surveys into transport woes have been released this year, all with similar results.

It is no wonder that some employers have moved transport issues higher up the strategic agenda as such delays have a direct effect on productivity, morale, stress levels and the company’s bottom line. It can also have an impact on recruitment, staff retention and an organisation’s reputation as a place to work.

Traditionally, transport issues have been the preserve of the facilities or estates departments, but in the past few years, HR has become increasingly involved. Tom Farnsworth, marketing manager at the Association for Commuter Transport (ACT), thinks transport policies are far more likely to be successful with HR on board.  “Companies double their chances of success if HR are involved,” Farnsworth says. “That’s because it’s a people issue and a behavioural change issue. The dream team is HR and the estates guys.”

Knock-on effect

Transport troubles sometimes come to HR’s attention because of the effect they are having on the workforce. This is why Brighton and Hove Council’s HR team started looking at its travel policy, according to Anthony Edwards, senior HR officer at the council. “In extreme circumstances, people were saying: ‘I think I will have to work somewhere else.’ That is why a year ago we decided we had to have a staff travel plan.”

The main predicament for the council was where staff could park their cars as there was insufficient capacity in the staff car park and surrounding streets. The other problem was that, typically, everyone would be arriving and leaving work at the same time. The solution to this problem tied in with a different HR workforce initiative being introduced at the same time: flexible working. “One of the cornerstones of our travel plan is flexible working,” says Edwards.

By staggering start and end times to the working day, the council reduces the problem of blockage at peak times. Another flexible working initiative that Edwards hopes will further improve matters is homeworking. The council is now trialing homeworking, which he thinks will further address transport issues and be a boost to recruitment.

The council has also negotiated a deal with a local bus company whereby staff can purchase season tickets at discount rates, entitling them to unlimited travel.

At Nationwide Building Society’s headquarters in Swindon, transport was such a big issue for employees that HR knew something had to be done. On a bad day, employees were sometimes queuing for up to an hour just to get into the staff car park. “People were taking a long time to get into work and home again because of the congestion,” says Andrew Litchfield, head of social and environmental responsibility at Nationwide. “But you don’t really want people to arrive at work already stressed and exhausted.”

Like Edwards, Litchfield says flexible working arrangements can help alleviate the problem and is one of Nationwide’s travel plan solutions. Work-life balance is such an important issue for employees that HR cannot afford to ignore it – people are starting to vote with their feet and sometimes leaving jobs that infringe too much on their personal lives.

A lengthy commute can pose a real problem for people who want to leave or arrive home at a reasonable hour, particularly for parents who want to see their children before bedtime. The CMI survey found that 48 per cent of managers say travelling difficulties affect family commitments such as reading bedtime stories to children and one in four have missed social engagements as a result of congestion.

Problems are not only confined to reduced time out of the office – many employees feel they have to make up the missed hours when they are in the office. This can lead to employees working through lunch to make up time (54 per cent of CMI survey respondents) or working beyond their contractual hours at the end of the day (67 per cent). All of this results in increased workforce stress, decreased productivity and morale and should have alarm bells ringing in HR departments.

Nationwide recently ran a workforce survey that looked at how emp-loyees got to work, how they would like to get to work given the choice, and what they would like the company to do to overcome the problems. Farnsworth says a travel survey is the ideal starting point for any organisation implementing a travel plan. “You need to ask questions such as: ‘If there were cycle lockers and showers, would you cycle?’,” he says. “You need to build up a picture of your staff and what they would like.” Building a new car park was one option mooted in the Nationwide survey, but a significant number of employees said that creating more tarmac was not the answer.

Nationwide already runs a shuttle bus service, operated by a local company, that does a run in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening. And like many out-of-town employers, it has created onsite facilities, such as a supermarket, hairdressers, gym and internet cafe, so there is less need for employees to travel out during the working day.

Car sharing is another option that many companies are promoting. Legal & General has reduced the number of cars arriving at its largest site in Surrey by around 200 every day since introducing a car-share scheme. Dave Chadwick, deputy director of HR at the Central Manchester and Manchester Children’s University Hospitals NHS Trust, says the trust is offering a boon to those who car share. “If people car share [they] will get preferential car parking treatment.”

It is not unusual for organisations to reward employees for reducing the number of cars in the car park. Telecoms company Vodafone pays staff an extra £80 per month if they catch the bus, cycle or walk to work at its headquarters facility in Newbury, Berkshire.

The hardest bit can be changing attitudes, according to Litchfield. “You have to lead people into it gently and not try to convert them overnight.” One of the initial barriers to car sharing that Litchfield found at Nationwide was that employees were concerned they would be left stranded if their car sharer was ill, had a meeting or worked late. Employees now know that they have access to a free taxi if their designated driver is not available.

Employees need to be involved in the decision-making process and communication needs to be clear about what initiatives are designed to do and why. It also needs to be regular so that it doesn’t fall off the agenda.

Travel problems are apparent across the UK, the CMI survey found. For example, 21 per cent of respondents in the North East said they had missed training and development courses because of travel disruption. Now, if HR professionals were to consider the financial implications of those empty course places, that in itself should prompt them to question if there is a transport problem that needs to be addressed.

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