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Commuting to work: Train wreck or easy ride?

As we see the biggest increase in rail fares since 2013 what can HR do to ease the burden on employees?

In the 1880s the Victorians introduced cheap workman’s trains to encourage people to leave London and to commute into the capital from the suburbs.

“At the time working-class rental housing [in London] was so expensive that it was seen as one of the main causes of poverty,” explains professor David Green, from the department of geography at King’s College London. “As a solution to the problem and as a way of getting the poor out of the very congested and unsanitary inner city, the government insisted that train companies – which were privatised at the time – had to offer a cheap workman’s train early in the morning [coming into London] and then going back at night.”

As a result, from the 1880s onwards working-class suburbanisation around London began. Fast-forward nearly 140 years and the repercussions of the Victorians’ dramatic poverty-tackling strategy are still being felt today.

Latter generations of those families that moved out of the centre of the London to escape the grip of poverty can now ill-afford to commute into the capital because of the crippling cost of train travel.

The concept of a ‘workman’s fare’ is a thing of the past. Today the cost of commuting on a daily basis by train can run into thousands of pounds a year. And these fares rose significantly at the start of 2018 when train companies announced the largest rail ticket price increases since 2013. In some instances the cost of season tickets rose by more than £100.

So what can be done to address the issue of the growing cost of commuting, and what role can HR play in supporting employees hit by these rises?

Although the rising price of train fares is a UK-wide issue, the greatest pain is being felt by commuters who work in London. According to Green, the soaring cost of housing is driving a “hollowing out of the capital”; with many people ditching living in London in favour of other UK towns and cities where housing is more affordable. However, any savings made on the housing front are increasingly being over-ridden by the growing cost of commuting while train fares continue to increase year after year.

The CIPD’s 2016 Employee Outlook: Focus on commuting and flexible working report underlined the scale of the problem. When asked what the government’s priorities should be around commuting issues, four in 10 (40%) employees said it should look to reduce public transport fares. A fifth (20%) also said that the government should campaign to encourage companies to allow their employees to work more flexibly.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester’s Alliance Business School, says that from an HR perspective it’s “not complicated” to address this issue.

“If you think about big UK cities they aren’t heavy manufacturing economies – they are knowledge- and service-based economies,” he says.

Therefore employees don’t need to be in the office from 9.30am to 5.30pm five days a week, he argues. Advances in technology mean that most people can work remotely on laptops, smartphones and tablets, so they can start doing their emails from home and then travel to and from work during off-peak rail fare times.

Contrary to the belief of some employers Cooper thinks that reducing the number of hours people spend in the office could increase productivity. He points to an experiment in Gothenburg, which over a two-year period (starting in 2014) compared the productivity levels of civil servants in Sweden who worked 30-hour weeks against those who worked 40-hour weeks.

“The 30-hour week people had significantly higher job satisfaction, less sickness absence days, and were more productive than the 40-hour week people,” says Cooper.

The problem is that in the UK some senior leaders and managers have negative attitudes towards flexible working and there is an “ingrained organisational culture that still places a premium on presenteeism,” says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD.

“If you look at the data, the proportion of companies that say they offer flexible working has increased over the last 10 to 15 years, but the actual uptake of individuals who work flexibly has barely shifted,” says Willmott. “Also most flexible working is either part-time or flexi-time. Things like term-time working, annualised hours, compressed hours, job shares – these sorts of practices are hardly used at all so we need more businesses to become more innovative about the sorts of flexible working practices they use to see the long-term benefits.”

Some businesses have been more progressive in their approach to the problem. Alex Arundale, HR director at software company Advanced, believes that a prohibitively expensive and/or long commute is often counter-productive to a happy, motivated and engaged workforce.

As a result the company has “intentionally transformed the structure of our business into core regional hubs,” says Arundale. “This not only ensures we can meet the needs of customers and partners more effectively, it also means that our workforce can take advantage of minimal commutes. The majority of our staff live locally to one of our offices. In addition, we support a flexible workforce that allows for a large mobile field team working from home – we’ve invested in the latest technology to ensure they can operate productively from home.”

But while some private sector firms have been proactive, the public sector has a more limited ability to re-strategise, or offer employees greater financial support, at a time when its resources are increasingly strapped.

And as public sector pay rises fail to keep up with inflation there is a growing risk that key workers in sectors like health, education and social care will be less likely to live and work in major UK cities like London, says Ben Morrin, director of workforce at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

He thinks that action needs to happen at three different levels to tackle this problem. “Government can help us through its decisions on the national pay deal for the NHS this spring, the [London] mayor and GLA can help us by proactively considering how transport and housing strategies can help key workers, and we as employers need to ensure we are doing all we can to support the individual interests of staff – everyone has their own reason for working the way they do.”

Whether or not the government heeds calls from the likes of Morrin remains to be seen. It’s highly unlikely that ‘workman’s fares’ will return any time soon, but something needs to happen and quickly. Because otherwise it won’t just be London that’s in danger of becoming ‘hollowed out’.