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Stephen Bevan: we still don't trust people to work flexibly

The prevailing culture of most workplaces is still not ready to trust people to work out of sight

Leaving home for work and arriving back in darkness is a common experience for commuters at this time of year. The train carriages on wet winter mornings are often full of people who look bleary-eyed, haunted and silently resigned to the ordeal of public transport. And all this before they even get to the office.

With a recent report showing a 72% increase in the number of people spending more than two hours travelling to work each day, it looks like many are opting – willingly or not – for working days book-ended with the joy of rush-hour travel. Most strikingly, there has been a 130% increase in the number of women commuting for more than three hours a day since 2004. It can hardly be said that this part of the average working day enhances our quality of life, and yet for most it seems an increasing necessity.

In the south-east of the UK there is clearly a ‘London’ effect – with house prices and rents growing at a faster rate than elsewhere, forcing more people who need to retain their London salaries to find homes further out of the city. This effect is visible in other large cities around the country, and it means that a higher proportion of our working day is being spent just getting to work and home again.

As might be expected, longer commutes can have all sorts of negative side effects. A 2011 Swedish study looking at the health consequences of longer commuting found a negative impact on sleep quality, stress, self-reported health and exhaustion among those commuting for more than an hour by car, bus or train compared with those walking or cycling to work (Hansson et al, 2011). Other studies have highlighted that work/life balance can be affected too, and with the high cost of childcare, longer commutes can be both costly and disruptive to family life.

So what of the promise of technology-enabled remote working? Wasn’t that supposed to wean us off the idea that ‘work is a place’? If anything, technology has played a part in intensifying rather than alleviating work pressure, with large numbers of us checking emails at home and even on holiday. It wasn’t so long ago that we were told the high cost of office accommodation was encouraging more employers to allow people to work at home and attend meetings via Skype to reduce office occupancy.

And what of the idea that remote working is a ‘greener’ alternative to having armies of commuters in CO2-emitting transit day after day? Or the strategy of staggering start and finish times to smooth out the congestion of the rush ‘hour’ and allow people more time ‘sovereignty’?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that the prevailing culture of most workplaces is still not ready to trust people to work out of sight. Maybe we still value inputs more than outputs or managers can’t cope with the idea of managing people they don’t see every day, or remote working is regarded as no more than an indulgence for knowledge workers. In 2013 the CEO of technology company Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, made headlines by discouraging homeworking in her workforce to improve collaboration and because “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home”.

I can’t help thinking about the number of increasingly lengthy, costly and stressful commuter journeys that might be avoided if we could get our cultural and technological act together and trust people to do a good job even if we can’t scrutinise their every move. However, it could be that I’m being naively unrealistic. Perhaps work is a place after all.