Taking the stress out of train strikes with flexible working

Gilbert K Chesterton, 20th century poet and writer ruefully said “the only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it.” Getting to the station on time can be a punishing task. Even if commuters manage to circumvent the many diversions and distractions along the way, there’s no assurance the trains will run to schedule. 

There’s a plethora of reasons why commuters’ best laid travel plans derail from signal failures to broken down trains. Just recently crowds of commuters were stranded on packed trains for over an hour and a huge stretch of the London Overground line ground to a halt thanks to a power cut on the line. 

In 2016, Southern Rail alone cancelled nearly 60,000 trains. Last year, figures revealed that trains are running later than any other time in the past ten years. Add industrial action to the mix, and it makes sense that over half (53%) of employed adults arrive to work stressed due to problems with their commute. 

So why don’t more people work from home? According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (the professional body for HR professionals), despite Londoners having the longest commuting times fewer work flexibly (52 per cent) compared to the national average (54 per cent). The argument for flexible working has been made time and time again for more than a decade now – and yet many business managers are still reluctant to cede control. Despite ample proof that flexible working is more efficient (which includes the 83% of workers around the world who say adopting flexible working has improved productivity within their organisation), a culture of presenteeism still prevails. 

Proactive about flexible working 

Sometimes it takes a series of inconvenient events to change ingrained ways of doing things - such as chaos on the railways. Considering RMT and London Underground are still embroiled in an intractable clash of opinions, the prospect of further strikes loom large (and with it, an urgent switch to remote working arrangements). 

While it doesn’t really matter what triggers a company to institute flexible working, how they accommodate it does. For flexible working to benefit the employee and employer, a distributed infrastructure needs to be put in place – from constant access to high-speed broadband, remote secure channels to send and receive information, a protected repository to store said information and mobile access to company network and business applications. All of these arrangements need to comply with industry regulations. It’s important to note, these aren’t reasons to deny someone’s right to work flexibly, but they are needed to make flexible working a viable alternative.   

MEC, a leading media communications specialist with 199 offices in 79 countries, considered these issues when it started planning for business disruption. With clients such as Canon, Colgate, Daimler Chrysler, Yahoo and others depending upon MEC for their corporate and brand communications, MEC made the prudent decision to plan ahead and mitigate future crises. By reducing its dependence on its traditional PBX system, employees can now work from any location and still access voice services. Calls can be delivered to a person’s primary location during normal operations and immediately switched to another location when necessary. The set-up is so seamless that flexible working has outlived its original transient intent - to bridge the gap during an emergency response. It’s now the de-facto way of working for the full-service media company. 

This has been made possible by advances in cloud technology, which ensure a telephone call is never missed because someone is out of the office, and company bosses still have proper oversight to ensure their organisation is working in compliance with relevant regulations. Business calls can be recorded, indexed and stored in a highly secure vault.  Nothing has to be left to chance.  

Of course, trust is paramount. While business owners can use technology to steady the ship, for flexible working to succeed, everyone needs to buy-in to a shared business culture: one which champions diligence, accountability and results. Team cohesion is still important, possibly more so for remote workers than office workers. Knowing you can always reach your colleague on the phone certainly helps; as do regular team get-togethers. 

Attracting talent and taming the Wild West    

In the skirmish to find the right people with the right skills, flexible working is a company’s best chance at attracting people that will make a difference. In fact, for a third of employees, it’s preferable to a pay rise. Given the importance of recruiting and retaining talent, flexible working shouldn’t be an afterthought or just a reaction to a crisis, but a central plank of an organisation’s wider efficiency drive – as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) did, when it rolled out flexible working for military and civilian staff.   

By planning for and mitigating the risk of disruption, the MoD now has the infrastructure in place to ensure swift and secure access to people wherever they may be, while reducing call charges and turning the downtime spent travelling to work, into productive time. Extrapolating these productivity gains across the department, the MoD is saving the equivalent of at least 200 man-years per annum, a huge benefit by any standards.   

The MoD and MEC’s preparedness is in stark contrast to those companies that only allow flexible working in the wake of a crisis like industrial action. In these situations, many workers would treat a short-term flexible working arrangement as a holiday – a chance to slack off, particularly if the technology and processes aren’t in place to ensure adequate transparency and answerability. But an outlier workforce doesn't have to represent the Wild West. 

If flexible working is embedded for the long haul, staff have a real opportunity and a vested interest in showing it can work – meaning everyone wins. 

James Foley, Vice President at Resilient 

Image Credit: llaszlo / Shutterstock