The culture of working nine-to-five, five days a week at the same desk in the same building is in retreat, and transport must adapt

 

A WeWork office in central London

 

My 25 years in the transport industry have been based on assumptions about the need for the mass movement of people, and goods, in the modern economy and that this is the basis for how society is progressed – increases in mobility provide for increases in wealth and well-being.

But, is this actually the world which is developing before us, and particularly in the developed economies?

Our cities are growing. Around the world, we are increasingly becoming urban beings. As part of this rise, a series of mega cities are continuing to emerge. These 10-plus million metropolis’ include London, Paris and Tokyo, as well as Beijing, Djakarta, New Delhi and Lagos. The UN predicts that there will be over 40 global mega cities by 2030. There are many factors pushing as well as pulling people to these larger cities, but economic opportunity is one of the primary factors.

Meanwhile, we are seeing technology change how we experience life – both in terms of work and play. These changes are increasing as new and more disruptive technologies emerge and displace existing processes and entire businesses.

In terms of work, technology and growing cities have created the need for massive transport infrastructure and increasingly this is seen as being underpinned by large scale public transport networks. Most emerging economies see no viable mobility model other than large scale public transport systems as a means of delivering mobility and dealing with sustainability. This is most apparent in cities in India and China where over a few years massive, largely rail-based, public transport systems have been built.

Globally, these systems provide the mobility that as urban dwellers we need to fulfil  the numerous journeys that encompass modern life. But, particularly in developed economies, how robust are many of the assumptions underpinning this need for increasing and massive scale mobility as an ever increasing need?

A core element of the transport demand pattern, and the basis for most transport systems, is commuting to and from work at some location on a somewhat regular basis.

In 2014 up to 14% of the UK workforce primarily worked from home

Working from home has for decades been an imminent trend that has seemed to be pending, but not yet arrived. In 2014 up to 14% of the UK workforce primarily worked from home. In the US, 24% of workers did all or some of their work from home in 2015. These national statistics likely mask a number of regional variations in terms of rural areas where remote working is a key part of the rural lifestyle, large city dynamics where technology is enabling a reconsideration of travel patterns, as well as industrial and manufacturing centres where work requires a presence at a central location.

As an industry, we have perhaps vastly oversimplified the meaning of these trends and somehow assumed as there hasn’t been an immediate change in travel, the longer term implications will be muted.

The modern world has given us many more choices over how and when to travel. We are neither locked into the late 20th century model of only being able to complete work at a centralised facility/office or alternatively rapidly becoming self-contained hermits who only peer out occasionally to check the temperature and for some daylight. The situation is much more complicated. To start, we are social beings and need – most of us – regular and intensive social contact to feel positive about our lives.

The future of work is rapidly evolving in terms of time as well as space. Offices have been redesigned a number of times over the last few decades to be increasingly flexible, cost efficient, communal, open spaces where workers can be easily restructured and continue to perform and interact. Over this time, as a consequence, and this may often be an implicit policy, office locations have been seen as not necessarily the most desirable places to get work done and thus abandoned versus other alternatives by employees. This may be a move to another part of the existing office space – a remote shared work area or quiet corner desk – all of which is enabled by improvements in portable working technology. While some office workers seek quiet, others seek more stimulative, dynamic or exciting locations that allow work to be progressed, but outside of the constraints of a regimented office that may seem to be more akin to a battery chicken farm.

As an example, consider the remarkable rise in shared office work locations. In central London we have witnessed shared work locations using peripheral and older office building stock for a number of years. What we are now seeing is new buildings in prime sites being let to shared offices from the outset. To visit one of these locations is to see the spectacle of incredibly busy hubs of activity from numerous companies overlapping in shared, private and semi-private locations. They seem in design and engagement to be the antithesis of how work was defined only a few years ago. It is also apparent that all of the users of these facilities cannot be SMEs just starting out on a business venture, but in many cases employees of larger businesses seeking flexible, convenient, transferrable working locations for a short or longer term. They offer the ability for any office to be your office!

For larger organisations they may see fully flexible shared workspace as a less expensive and more efficient means of providing space to workers.

Meanwhile, the coffee shop has become a short term workspace for the flexible worker. These businesses serve as remote space for those on the move between meetings or for other personal reasons those not able to work from their own home or office due to space, motivation or other needs.

Also, as a personal user of a private business and social club in central London, I can easily mix meetings, a few minutes or full day of work, and a social conversation with an interesting lecture and relaxing down time – all on the basis of choosing to be in central London as opposed to at home.

This trend has now seen the inevitable further business disrupter arrive as a start-up. There are companies now offering freelancers the opportunity to work in the homes of other freelancers! Thus, you can have conveniently located office space, but with the ability to have a social shared experience as well during your day. One such business is Homepreneur in the UK.

However, everyone clearly does not work in a knowledge-based office role. Retail workers – who are time and location dependent; production workers at factories and workshops; workers who need to start work from a depot to collect vehicles, equipment, deliveries, etc; specialist workers at locations such as hospitals, dental care centres, teachers etc who need to be at specific locations to serve patients and use dedicated equipment all need to be at certain locations and at specific times.

And simply many employers still expect their, even office based workers, to be in the office during “office hours” actually doing the work that they are paid for.

All of these trends in the role of the office are being supported and reinforced by more rapid changes in shopping habits – deliveries, take away deliveries, at home services arranged via the internet, the removal of the need for comparison shopping in person as well as social interaction by social media. All of which fundamentally change our relationship with travel as a requirement to live daily life and for social contact.

Additional issues are raised regarding the security of work communication and documents in this flexible work world; the number of work hours – which may actually increase; how an ageing society reacts to these opportunities; as well as the suitability and safety of a home as a place of work.

 

What does this mean for transport?

Much of the transport network remains busy in the classic tidal flow to and from work centres. Wider changes in the propensity to travel can be masked by growing populations in already large cities. Cities are often congested during the peak times and shopping locations busy – but many of these locations and services have seen declines in recent demand. Travel is changing as well as social tastes for leisure and work activity.

The central role of the UK-typical High Street as a focus for community and activity is being challenged or changed. For work, shopping and leisure the mix of how people use these locations is evolving.

Given more flexibility in when and where to work, people are making more diverse choices in how to live their lives.

Given more flexibility in when and where to work, people are making more diverse choices in how to live their lives. This may mean some commuting, some at-home working, some remote working as well as being much more flexible about working in a range of locations “on the go”.

This provides many, but not yet all workers, with choices about rejecting the “peak commute” and its stresses and peak prices and perhaps travelling later or earlier. Furthermore, travelling off-peak raises expectations for many public transport users about more space on vehicles and perhaps the ability to be productive while travelling. There is also the ability to choose perhaps to be much more local and therefore “localising” your life in or near your home for some part of the week. This has impacts on the types of transport modes that may be used during the work day. For many, suburban residents, this may mean more use of the car. However, it is also an opportunity to rediscover cycling, or even walking, for local trips.

The most significant issue for the transport industry is, however, the impact on investment in transport capacity as a result of these work force changes. If we are finally seeing the wide scale adoption of remote and flexible working in our developed world cities how much (more) and what type of investment is needed to now serve this potentially more diverse, partially localised, workforce that sees work as a fundamentally different experience from only a few years ago?

 

About the author:

Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as Head of Marketing Strategy at Transport for London.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!