Before you extol the benefits of home working to your friends and followers on social media, consider what a future of home working means for public transport – writes Alex Warner


It’s difficult to defy Boris and do travel testing right now, so my apologies for some mystery shopping of industry colleagues attempts to work remotely during these challenging times, as well as a bit of my usual ponderous rumination all things customer service.

Obviously, it’s great that folk are managing to adapt to working away from their office, but I do detect a hint of turkeys voting for Christmas in the slightly triumphant tone about how some are managing to do so. As a transport industry we should not be celebrating on social media or even amongst our colleagues, that we’re actually finding it just as easy, if not even easier, to sit at home and get all of our team on a call and direct public transport. The more we tell ourselves and others’ that this is the case, the greater we are voting for the demise of our industry.

Just to remind everyone that once this lockdown is over, we don’t actually want people to work from home or do anything but continue to purchase a weekly, monthly or annual season ticket. Similarly, we’d like it if people chose to visit Aunt Annie in Scotland, rather than beam her up on Facetime, and travel the length of the country to attend a sporting event or concert rather than watch it at home on the box.

Not understandably, our current curfew has the potential to play tricks on our mental health, but if there’s one thing that’s tinkering at my own mind, it is having to look on LinkedIn and other channels at transport industry folk posting pictures of lots of different computer screens with their colleagues’ faces on them. It is as though they are delighted they’ve found an alternative to actually travelling by public transport to engage with them. Of course, on the one hand this is great, in that we can still carry on with some degree of normality during these bleak times, but it is also a source of sadness and regret. If anything, it’s made me more determined than ever not to change, when this horrendous situation is over.

I personally think that there really is no substitute for face-to-face engagement

I personally think that there really is no substitute for face-to-face engagement and I also think that anyone who thinks you can have just a great a relationship with a client, colleague or gaffer over Skype, Teams, Zoom or whatever technology, is as deluded as Donald Trump was when he dismissed Coronavirus a month or so ago. In the consultancy game that I’m in, winning business is really key, obviously. My view has always been that those who go out of their way to travel and meet current and future clients, understand their needs and build a deep relationship, are those most likely to thrive. Anyone can sit in front of a computer at home in their pyjamas drinking tea on a cold March morning and try and do a sales pitch, but the ones who really want to succeed will be those who put themselves out, get on a train and take themselves to their audience, in their workplace. Of course, I suspect there’s plenty of folk out there who would rather I didn’t turn up on their doorstep, but hopefully you’ll get my drift. Taking the time to travel will be the USP when it comes to differentiating between potential suppliers in the future, I feel.

How companies use this current hiatus is really important. For those that can afford to keep their staff employed, then they should utilise this time effectively. I’m working with a great client currently on creating their Customer Experience Strategy. Rather than say that the coronavirus means they cannot focus on anything apart from keeping the job going, they see this as a vital few months where myself and their team can beaver away unobtrusively in the background to develop their new way of working for when the world returns to normal. It’s not just the time to do all those DIY chores you’ve put off for years round the house, but it’s the best possible period to reflect on reinvention, future strategy and do the donkey work behind this.

It’s interesting to watch folks’ behaviour during these challenging times. I’ve not worked in a commuting/office role for over 12 years now, so having the study in the front room as my office has no novelty value. I am, however, badly missing putting the suit on, going to meetings, being a spiv, talking nonsense in coffee shops and over lunch and hanging round hotel foyers with my laptop open as though I’m some kind of captain of industry. For others, unaccustomed to working at home, I’ve noticed a bit of relief and the ability to re-charge their batteries, which is great. Some, though, have, in my view, got themselves into a bit of a sub-conscious downward spiral, less productive and having lost their sense of purpose, their usual spark has been replaced by a bit of emptiness.

There are some folk, however (and I’m sorry to sound cynical during these challenging times) who I think may be using the coronavirus as a bit of an excuse to suggest they are completely swamped and uncontactable. These tend to be those who are a bit slack at answering emails or voicemails during normal times – creating a veneer of importance around them that they are doing such a monumentally senior job that they cannot possibly be available.

Now, we are left to believe they are as flat out as Boris Johnson, at the nerve edge of the transport industry and if they are disturbed for a split second, the nation will teeter over the edge. They do, though, find the time to post on social media about how proud they are of themselves and their team, nonetheless. We’re led to believe they’re “out of bounds” and that we can’t contact them at a time like this with the trivialities of what might be important to us, or if we do we must apologise ten-fold in advance for having the audacity to do so and then feel guilty. The reality is that they are at home just like, you and I, and actually they’ve less buses, trains or coaches to run right now and certainly a lot less customers.

Of course, what I’d really love is for everyone in the industry to use this time not just to plan how to be better for customers in the future, but to actually phone a different customer every day. Last week, my 85-year-old father, received a call from the chap who runs Crystal Palace Football Club’s media outlets, to check on his welfare. He was calling all season ticket holders over 70 to see if the club could help – he doesn’t live far away either and offered to check in on Dad, if he needed it. What a wonderful gesture and something that every transport company top dog could do, between their precious video-conferencing sessions and social media posting.

Anyway, I digress, as ever. Do I genuinely believe public transport has changed forever because of the coronavirus? I guess a lot depends on how long this situation lasts. I’m fairly positive, in truth. I think that this whole “Big Society” mantra of everyone looking out for each other that has come to the surface in adversity, will lend itself more favourably to the role of bus travel as a key lifeblood to disparate and vulnerable communities.

It comes at a time when bus-fan Boris has committed to resuscitating the sector and also the Panorama documentary a fortnight ago about the loss of rural services didn’t do any harm either. For rail, what’s happened just reinforces the right decision of commissioning a Rail Review in 2018 and the need for the slate to be wiped clean once Keith Williams is able to come out of the closet with his findings.

It’s easy just one into the “lockdown” for us to think that it’s all plain sailing working from home and filling our days with one online call after another

I don’t also think that technology will have the seismic impact on travel as folk might think. It’s easy just one into the “lockdown” for us to think that it’s all plain sailing working from home and filling our days with one online call after another (interesting how we cannot just work without scheduled calls or maybe just make a phone spontaneous phone calls – it’s as though without the structure of “meetings” we are incapable of knowing what to do or functioning). I bet by August, if we’re still stuck indoors, everyone will be stir crazy, pining for the office or to travel the length of the country for a meeting.

Personally, I think it will be like the period after the Second World War when everyone was having street parties, doing the Hokey Cokey and cinemas were rammed to capacity whilst thousands were queuing for miles to watch midweek county cricket. There may well be a baby boom too, you never know! Everything we’ve taken for granted all these years, like public transport will be gorged on, devoured and sap under the weight of monumental demand.

For now, let’s suck it and see. In truth, I don’t think we need to start making judgments on how the future will pan out. It’s still early days. One thing is for sure, even if we’re feeling a bit cocksure and pleased at how easy it is proving to work remotely, as transport industry folk we should maybe tone that down a little. Even if what we’re thinking might not get out to the outside world, it will build a sub-conscious mindset.

I’ve spent nine years in this column trying to get people to get out and about on their network, to celebrate travelling by public transport in their work time and when off duty and in doing so see things through the eyes of customers and engage with customers and colleagues. The more we think we can do business behind a computer screen and the more we tell people this is possible, the more remote we become from our customers and those who we employ.

What’s more, if it is us, of all people, who are celebrating how easy it is to work and socialise without even leaving our house, then we’re effectively going into Gerald Ratner mode and signing the death knell for our own industry.

If we can’t be advocates of public transport, who else will? I get that we can’t travel right now, but let’s use the time cleverly, keep promoting the benefits of travel for when the world gets back to normal and plot in the background how we can make our proposition better for customers to win them over when the good times roll, once more.