Guest Blog: Growing economy, slowing commute – sowing the need for smarter working

November can be a miserable month, the temperature is dropping fast and many of us now find ourselves going to work in the dark and returning home after the sun has set. 

To add to this sombre mood, a TUC new analysis of unpublished Office for National Statistics data has found that the average commuter journey is growing longer as the roads get more crowded. 

The average time taken to travel to work for employees has increased by 5.4 per cent since 2008, and the number of people travelling to work by car has risen by 6 per cent.

As the economy has started to grow again, the number of people in work has risen rapidly. There are now about 700,000 more employees in the UK than there were two years ago and 486,000 more self-employed individuals. This equates to a million-strong increase in the total number of people travelling to work in just two years. No wonder journey times are increasing.

There are also some obvious dangers in travelling in the dark, rain and fog as autumn turns into winter, and these hazards are compounded as the roads get more crowded.

The government could do something to help alleviate the situation. More investment in public transport and infrastructure is clearly needed. We should press ministers to deliver the transport system that this country needs, but we should also do our bit by doing our best to help ourselves.

There are some good ways of working smarter that can help us avoid the frustration and expense of the rush hour, for example, more of us could work from home, or use flexi-time to stagger the beginning and end of our working day. 

Polling shows that there is a substantial unmet demand from staff for more flexible ways of working. Wages growth is still slow and with petrol prices now 15 per cent higher than before the recession and fares risings sharply, cost-conscious workers are after a cheaper commute – or no commute at all. 

I warmly welcome WorkWiseUK’s Commute Smart Week, because it’s a good opportunity for employers, employees and unions to think about how everyone’s travel-to-work can be managed differently.

Employers have, perhaps understandably, taken their eyes off the ball recently when it comes to flexible and home working, but the underlying business case for considering smarter ways of working remains the same – give workers what they want and they will tend to stay with the same employer for longer and more importantly be better motivated.

It is clear the labour market is now tightening. Unemployment has fallen by more than half a million in the past year. Last year there were 4.7 unemployed people chasing every vacancy, now the ratio has fallen to about 2.9, which is getting close to where it was during the last boom (circa 2007).  

When employment levels rise, the focus always turns to quality, so rather than being content simply to be in work, people become more concerned about finding a good job. In an age where almost everyone seems to have a smartphone or a tablet, it would be easy to allow homeworking in many jobs, thus saving the average worker the time and cost of more than four hours commuting each week.

Access to flexitime helps workers avoid the rush hour. As well as being what many employees want, this measure can have some surprising mutually beneficial side effects. For example, the Schott Company, which has a large manufacturing plant in Germany, told the TUC that introducing flexitime has actually reduced the number of employees injured in road accidents on their way to work.

Commuting issues are set to rise up the employment relations agenda. I hope that many employers will take the opportunity provided by Commute Smart Week to focus on how to make it easier, safer and more convenient for their workers to get to work.