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Network Rail: implications of remote office move raise issues for HR directors in general

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The disagreement between Network Rail and Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), the trade union representing the workers who are required to move to the new office, raises a number of issues for employers and employees alike.

HR directors, facilities management directors and those with responsibility for business strategy should pay attention to this issue and question how they would comply with green transport planning requirements.

The controversy surrounds Network Rail's move to Milton Keynes and the relocation of staff, which is currently under negotiation. Network Rail's management has set a limit on the time it should take employees to get to work from home as a relocation criterion.

It is being portrayed as a stark choice for employees; if you live more than 75 minutes away from work you will either have to relocate or Network Rail will no longer employ you. The negotiations have been rather more nuanced than this but the situation nonetheless raises some interesting employment and environmental issues.

The daily commute to work is asymptom of modern working life and has many effects on all who have to do it. Long working days with ever longer commuting journeys lead to tiredness, stress, expense and general loss of quality of life. National Rail have pointed to this in justifying their approach. The effects on transport infrastructure can also be seen daily with crowded trains and buses and peak time traffic jams whilst fuel consumption and carbon emissions are a direct consequence of commuting and need to be tackled. Is it not therefore reasonable for employers to adopt policies to mitigate these social and economic ills?

On the other side of the argument shouldn't people be free to live where they want - quality of life in a different light - and take the stress of commuting as part of the pact? Employers looking for staff will either have to deal with a reduced pool of applicants or shell out for relocation costs. Most, if not all of the above, are valid arguments but choices will have to be made at political, business and personal levels to achieve a working compromise.

This area, where two different legal disciplines; planning and employment, meet, is particularly tricky. Increasingly planning authorities have been requiring new business parks and developments to have sustainable transport plans for their tenants. Most of these guidelines aim to encourage use of public transport and to deter use of cars by workers at the new development. This is done by restricting parking spaces, introducing car share schemes, encouraging walking and cycling and pump priming bus services.

To comply with any planning requirements that introduce a green transport plan, HR managers would have to focus on behaviour change and, ultimately, that will entail introduction of employment policies as a means of enforcing those changes. The green transport plan will introduce 'push and pull' measures to encourage employees to cease (or not to start) commuting by car or to discourage them from it. If an employer has a planning or tenancy obligation to abide by, it will on the face of it be reasonable to write employment contracts to ensure employees do not cause a breach. More difficult questions would arise in the context of recruitment policies if a planning obligation required developers to ensure that tenants had a workforce in which a minimum percentage travelledfrom within a specified distance or time band. It is questionable as a matter of planning law whether such a requirement would be lawful but it seems clear that pressure in this direction will continue.

Developers and tenants can introduce green transport plans when obliged to do so by planning obligations and tenants and employers can make green transport plans work, whether for simple compliance or for business effectiveness. An unusual coming together of a number of management and legal disciplines is required here but the key is to recognise the needs for new employment regulations early and plan for them accordingly.

Ross Griffiths is a partner at legal firm Cobbetts