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Modernising the image of our industry can unlock its true potential, and business attire and staff uniforms are part of that

 

Reading_uniformCasual and comfortable: our staff uniform

 

Last time I wrote about some thoughts on attracting the best talent to work in our industry (PT136). I was challenged recently that we should, of course, be calling it a profession, if we are really serious about this important matter! Inspired by comments from a young tech professional at a recent industry event, I concluded that perhaps we’re being held back by nothing more than our image.

In response, Ray Stenning really took the words right out of my mouth in his article ‘You can wear a suit, but it won’t help’ (PT137)! I’m absolutely convinced that an important element of image is undoubtedly about how we present ourselves individually, as well as corporately.

The competition for talent is, in many cases, about younger people – and as well as focussing on their needs in the modern world of employment, we probably ought to recognise that there is an increasing acceptance of smart casual styles in the wider world of business and commerce. Alongside rapid advancements in technology, the world is, some might say, becoming rather more casual, whether we like it or not.

This was really brought home to me at a recent supplier’s conference for a major blue chip telecoms company whose inter-site shuttle bus services we provide. The one-day event was attended by some 70 senior business leaders and owners from across their supply chain. Naturally wanting to make the very best impression to our valued client, I wore my best suit. Five minutes after arriving, my tie was off but I still looked overdressed – in comparison to public transport, quite frankly it was a different world. Since then I’ve even considered dressing down for our review meetings with them!

It’s not just the world of technology that’s taking a more casual approach to attire. Many regard our profession as ‘travel’ and I was delighted to recently attend an event organised by Qubit, a ‘marketing hub’ founded by four ex-Googlers, on the future of customer experience in travel. We heard from top execs of a number of leading travel companies, including the MD of Expedia UK, all presenting in smart casual attire. It didn’t deflect from what they were saying, quite the opposite really. The insight they gave into the demands and possibilities of the ‘digital traveller’, virtual test drives, the use of artificial intelligence and more was absolutely fascinating and streets ahead of anything I’ve heard in the world of public transport, yet much of it very relevant and easily transferable to us. Their part of the world of ‘travel’ seems a very exciting place to be and they’re clearly attracting some very talented employees as a result.

Dress codes are even promoted as part of the package by some employers. I’ve mentioned the restaurant chain Wagamama before. They actively promote the fact that “we’re more interested in what you do than how you look – some of our people have pink hair and tattoos and some don’t”. Pret, another favourite of mine, promotes a casual attire as part of their employment offer. To be honest the shirt and tie seems pretty dead on the high street these days, yet this is the very standard of customer experience that most of us aspire to provide in bus and rail. Even Marks & Spencer, arguably the bastion of British retail, has its front line teams dressed in casual, but smart, polo style tops and fleeces – apart from those in the suiting section of course.

So what does this mean for public transport? Surely our safety critical culture means we must uphold the highest standards and disciplines, including in personal presentation? Network Rail signal boxes are worth a look inside, but from a customer facing perspective this is where I’ll turn to the arguably even greater safety critical world of aviation.

Flying back from Poland a few years back, I was struck by the very smart cabin crew uniform of Hungarian airline Wizz Air. Not a tie in sight, but a safe, professional and dependable service all the same, just with a modern twist. At the time I was gearing up for the launch of Yorkshire Tiger, a ‘low cost – high quality’ bus operation in West Yorkshire for Arriva and was in the early stages of sorting uniforms. The Wizz Air experience really captured my imagination about the look and feel of its employee uniforms and how they help support the brand, culture and build the overall image. Some desktop research brought up an equally impressive ‘tieless’ style at Virgin America and a combination of both helped to shape the final Yorkshire Tiger look. It won unanimous approval from the workforce and customers alike, as well as many favourable comments from across the industry.

Imagine my surprise then upon joining Reading Buses to find that their, already in production, uniform had not only done away with ties, but adopted a very modern style all over, including a bespoke polo style shirt made of a wicking fabric material complete with a smart colour contrasting collar – not the usual type that so often look horrid after a few months of use.

It’s very different to a traditional bus uniform but, save for a few tweaks now being made (inevitable with a complete re-design of every garment), it’s won approval from the workforce and has even seen a slight increase in customer satisfaction scores for driver appearance. The team generally find it far more comfortable to drive in and freeing us up from the constraint of a tie certainly hasn’t sent us into cultural disarray or lowered customer delivery standards. In fact, on the back of it, we’ve now extended a smart casual dress code to our office staff.

Of course it’s not just about what you wear. Image is about strong branding across the whole product. It needs to be visually appealing, modern, and properly focussed at the target market, whilst being backed up by reliability, accessibility and strong attention to detail.

If you really want to see transport organisations moving with the times and presenting a fun and engaging style for employees and customers alike then take a look at the Asian low cost air market. India’s SpiceJet even has a special uniform for weekends, inspired by the concept of office “Casual Fridays” it says, adding that “Female crew wear colourful kurtis and jeans, the male cabin staff wear polo t-shirts with denims, from Friday to Sunday”. They say it’s about creating a much warmer, friendlier, more natural ambience for its customers.

Singaporean airline Scoot also uses a more casual style and their all-encompassing, highly visual and energetic culture, they call it ‘scootitude’, is championed by their CEO Campbell Wilson who is rarely to be seen in a suit or tie, despite being a 20-year aviation executive veteran with parent company Singapore Airlines. Where’s the ‘scootitude’ equivalent in the UK?

And then there’s the complete revolution that’s going on in the brewing market at the moment, where big is seemingly no longer beautiful and an increasing number of major brewers are buying up smaller ‘craft’ producers and desperately trying to retain the integrity of their cultures and identities in order to preserve market share and grow. Compare this with our national transport brands!

But even more formal organisations can cultivate a vibrant working environment and communicate that message well. Closer to home is the fascinating work that’s currently going on at the DVLA. Their young chief executive, Oliver Morley (twitter: @omorley1) and his team of techy experts have been let loose on a government department “dealing with 20 years of legacy IT”, as he tweeted at the end of last year. They’re completely transforming the way it works and seem to be having fun along the way, as well as attracting some top talent from the IT developer community to help them. I’m sure that, quite frankly, this would have been an alien concept a few years back.

And so that brings us back to the fascinating HackTrain project. Perhaps the UK rail industry’s Apple, where its leaders can host an entire conference whilst wearing a pair of trainers! It’s an interesting crossover with public transport, but we just don’t seem to be seeing anything like it that’s truly driven from within the profession. Shouldn’t we be taking charge and start leading this revolution ourselves, instead of being led by third party developments like CityMapper and Uber?

Perhaps our suits and ties do create a culture that stifles creativity and innovation? Hack Train’s B.A.R.R.I.E.R.S. report makes fascinating reading and there’s probably lessons in it for any franchised regime, not just heavy rail. I’m certain some of the points are applicable to today’s bus industry too. We really do need to address them. More on this next time!

 

About the author: Martijn Gilbert is the CEO of award winning Reading Buses. He’s spent 16 years working in the passenger transport industry in both bus and rail, including with SME and PLC group operators. He’s a keen user of public transport, being the first person in his family to drive, and is passionate about great customer service and finding the next innovations to improve services

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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