2nd May 2012
A study last year by the TUC found that employees in the UK spend almost 200 hours a year travelling to and from work.
While an average of approximately four hours a week may not sound like a huge amount, it is the equivalent of around five weeks extra work per year.
I remember reading this survey on a train from Hertfordshire into the City, crammed in with hundreds of other commuters heading into London to their offices.
I thought at the time how ironic it was that I, and most of the other people around me, spent almost as much time travelling to and from work as many of us took in annual leave each year. Were we taking a holiday from work, or were we all actually taking a holiday from commuting?
Perhaps employers should introduce a special “commuting holiday” in the annual leave allowance, which permits workers to offset the time spent travelling to work and back with days off?
Of course, this is unlikely to happen. But it does raise interesting questions about how both employees and employers alike approach the growing problem of a work-life balance in increasingly crowded metropolises.
Transport infrastructure is already operating near capacity in most mega cities and we are fast approaching the point where it cannot be upgraded fast enough to cope with demand using current technology. In fact, technology is often viewed as a short-term solution to problems rather than a longer-term driver of social and societal change.
However, as the world’s cities struggle from over-crowding issues, environmental concerns and economic pressures, technology has actually emerged as the front-runner in the battle to facilitate a more sustainable city for the 21st century.
The anywhere working city
I began discussing these ideas with Philip Ross, chief executive of UnWork.com – and we have brought together a number of concepts around the future of work within a city context in a paper called ‘The Anywhere Working City’.
We explore four primary concepts including the relationship between infrastructure and architecture; the touch-down office and third working space; the 100-mile-wide city and the evolution versus revolution of our cities.
We ask whether a new approach to the fabric or architecture of a city is needed, which draws together concepts that have been articulated over the last 20 years in order to enable people to work anytime, anywhere.
One of the key ideas here is that of a third space, which is a new set of urban locations within a city where people, places and technology meet to bridge the gap between home and office. These new metropolises, with their third spaces and innovative approaches to working, we call ‘anywhere working cities’.
In many ways, these future cities already exist. Smarter working concepts are being used by businesses across London and beyond.
Enabling technologies such as cloud-based services, the increasing number of WiFi hotspots, the consumerisation of technology and the growing acceptance of bring-your-own-device schemes in offices mean that the “places” where you can now work is both varied and numerous.
Emailing from a café or train is now as easy and acceptable as from your desk and the number of connected locations around the world continues to grow on a daily basis.
Future ‘anywhere working cities’ must have a strong, strategic transport architecture policy though - and one that will also have to be more inventive within the current transport framework to encourage a shift in attitude and behaviour.
New third spaces around railway stations and other transport hubs that can be used to stagger commuting times will continue to grow in popularity, while companies adopting future working practices that at the very least allow employees to start and finish within extended timeframes and, in the best cases, measure work by outputs, will become the norm.
I’m still amazed at conversations that I have with other working mothers over how some sectors have yet to shift to a more enlightened model of working that, fortunately enough for me, is accepted within my industry and by my employer.
Once you accept and embrace the idea of flexible working, it actually makes more and more sense. Why should we spend five weeks of our own valuable time travelling to work, only to arrive tired, grumpy and disenchanted?
Surely employers will see more value from their staff investment if they encourage a lifestyle that sees them start the working day fresh, unstressed and unhurried.
Suddenly concepts such as the touch-down office space – where pay-as-you-go technology could be used to enable people to access flexible working areas – do not seem so far-fetched. The concept of ‘bring your own device’ is gaining in popularity, so why not ‘bring your own office’?
We are entering a fascinating time for London as it comes under the Olympic spotlight. Smarter travel combined with alternative working practices, as championed by government-backed projects such as the Anywhere Working Consortium, could help guide London to become an ‘anywhere working city’ so that there is a sustainable legacy beyond the Games.
Certainly, if the current Transport for London projections are anything to go by, the Olympics and strains on existing infrastructure provide the best evidence yet that anywhere working cities and smarter working concepts are becoming more of a necessity than ever before.
My sobering reflection on the commuting study is that I’ve worked on and off in London for the last 20 years. I had to re-check the maths – have I really spent the best part of 2 years commuting? If so, then I, for one, am keen to see that pattern change for the rest of my career. Aren't you?
The paper referred to was co-authored by Linda Chandler, an enterprise architect at Microsoft, and Philip Ross, chief of UnWork.com.
It draws on interviews with and the work of various experts such as Sir Terry Farrell, master architect famous for his regeneration projects across the UK; Steven Norris, ex-transport minister and board member at Transport for London and Fiona Fletcher Smith, executive director of development and environment at the Greater London Authority.
This article was first published by our sister publication, www.Publictechnology.net. If you enjoyed it, you might also be interested in 'Talking Point: Why are there so few women in the workplace?'