Saturday, December 16, 2006

Road Charges

I recently had a request to sign a petition about potential road charges in the UK. the email concerned said " The government's proposal to introduce road pricing will mean you having to purchase a tracking device for your car and paying a monthly bill to use it. The tracking device will cost about £200 and in a recent study by the BBC, the lowest monthly bill was £28 for a rural florist and £194 for a delivery driver. A non working Mum who used the car to take the kids to school paid £86 in one month. On top of this massive increase in tax, you will be tracked."

Whilst I hate the idea of paying more tax, particularly when none of it will be used to improve the roads, I'm not sure I should sign the petition. If the pricing system discourages people from all travelling at the same time, in the rush hour, then it might be a good thing. Since employers are not rushing to introduce flexible working and therefore insist their employees travel at the most congested times, maybe some financial disincentive will work. I guess outraged employees will approach their bosses and ask more forcibly for the ability to flex their hours or to work some of the time from home.

There was an uproar when the congestion charge was first inroduced in London but now everyone accepts it and it has reduced the traffic jams on the roads. I guess we wil have the same objections to road charging but ultimately accept that if we insist on travelling in the rush hour we will have to pay for it.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Working in a Carbon Conscious World

Thie week has seen the publication of the Stern Review on Global Warming. This has pointed out that we have to act now on carbon emissions and recommended that we should be investing 1% of GDP to avoid the damaging effects of continued global warming. As well as pointing to technological solutions, the report identifies that there are currently barriers to behavioural change that are preventing the take-up of energy efficiency actions. It recommends regulation and taxation as ways to change behaviour and education as a way of influencing those still at school.

One of the behaviours that is a major cause of carbon emissions is the use of transport
associated with people at work, both commuting and business travel. We have people sitting in gridlocked traffic or crammed into public transport all trying to get to work at the same time, polluting the planet and getting stressed out in the process. We have people travelling to see others face to face when there are technologies available that can substitute for a high percentage of these meetings and save wasted time as well as carbon.

The Stern report is not very explicit about the way we can change these behaviours other than through taxation that makes the cost of transport prohibitive. However there is a much more effective solution waiting to be implemented if we can only get out of some working habits we have acquired over the last 200 years. If employers are prepared to be more flexible about when and where work is performed they can significantly reduce the amount of commuting endured by their employees. If they are also prepared to embrace technologies such as video-conferencing they can save the cost and time of business travel and improve their business results as well as add to their green credentials.

So, why do we still insist that people travel to work and then sit at a desk all day when they could do much of their work from a distance electronically? We are still wed to working patterns that were set up in the Industrial Revolution and we are struggling to adopt those appropriate to the Information Revolution. The internet has changed our habits as consumers and we expect the retail sector to have extended hours but we still have a high percentage of our information workers on a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday routine. The problem is bad management.

Despite a growing body of evidence that shows that people working flexibly are more productive and despite the cost savings and reduction in employee turnover and absenteeism, managers are still reluctant to let go of the current work practices. We have a ‘presenteeism’ culture in the UK that not only expects people to be at their desk to be seen to be working but also puts us at the top of the league in working hours but well down the list in productivity. The reason for this is that managers struggle to define the output of their workers and therefore have to manage by input. If they can’t measure results at leas they can measure the hours that someone works and pay them accordingly. But to be sure people are working they have to be seen at their desk, otherwise how can managers be in control?

So the new focus on global warming through the Stern Review should be a wake-up call to all employers to review their working practices. If their employees can spend one day a week working from home, or perhaps work four longer days and take the fifth off, we can immediately save 20% of the carbon emissions from commuting (at least by car). This also has the added benefit of improved work-life balance for the employee. If employers can replace half their face-to-face meetings with audio or video conferences they will save the time and cost of unnecessary travel and find the time wasted in the meetings also reduces. But to do this, managers will need to step outside their comfort zone of watching over people while they work and empower employees to manage their own work pattern. They will need to trust that people will not abuse this freedom and should provide a motivational environment that encourages productive work not long hours.

This contribution to the carbon emissions issue does not involve painful taxes or investment in new technologies. The office technology is there already to allow people to work at a distance and communicate effectively without travelling. So this solution is good for the environment by reducing travel, good for the economy by improving productivity and good for society by improving the quality of life for employees. By moving managers into the 21st century we can make a fundamental change in the amount of travel associated with work. In a low carbon economy we are going to have to use technology to address the demands for travel and tackle one of the key causes of global warming; not just minimise the effects of the problem through lower emission technologies.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Distance Working

I had an interesting discussion today with someone planning to make a TV documentary about people working from a distance. In particular they were looking at the trend towards living in France and Spain whilst still working in the UK.

Because air fares are so cheap (at least if you book well in advance) it is economical to live in the south of France and work in London, or other parts of the UK. With an increasing number of jobs involving electronic communications and a minimum of face-to-face contact it seems entirely reasonable to take advantage of better weather and a cheaper cost of living somewhere around the Mediterranean and commute back two or three times a month to the UK for meetings.

However it seems that most of the people who do this are self-employed or running their own business so they don't have a boss to answer to. Once management gets involved there are all sorts of reasons produced as to why this mode of working is totally impractical. When will organisations realise that they are only going to keep their talent if they have a broader view of how work gets done?

There is an argument that we are living in a temporary period of low air fares and they will have to rise with increasing costs of fuel and environmental taxes. But even so, the cost of traveling from France to the UK is likely to be less than 5 times more than the cost of commuting to working the UK (particularly in London). So if people only come to the office once a week instead of 5 times, they are still better off even if air prices do take off (excuse the pun!!).

But we would need to organise work so people are not expected to attend meetings at short notice. Is it just lazy management that we expect people to be available at short notice for meetings or is work so unpredictable that we cannot be organised in advance?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Video Meetings

Just had a fascinating workshop at Henley entitled 'Tools to support the virtual team' where we looked at various ways that people are communicating in distributed teams. We covered Instant Messaging and other text-based media and then went on to video conferencing. Our discussion was around how these technologies can make teams/meetings more effective and contribute to the business bottom line.

There was common agreement that a lot of wasted travel time and cost could be saved in cutting back on the number of face-to-face meetings and using video instead. However there seems to be a reluctance to adopt the technologies. Is this just technophobia, which will disappear with a new generation of managers/employees coming in, or is it that the technology is just too poor a substitute for the 'real thing'? Since the technology has not been tried on a widespread basis it looks like there must be some significant inertia built into our current working habits.

With environmental pressures increasing and the cost of travel rising there will be an increasing need to look at the need for so many meetings. Why do we need to travel for one or two hours to get to meet someone in person who we can see them on a screen with out the travel?

There is a lack of good case studies and cost-benefit analyses to show why businesses need video technologies. It is often assumed that you have to invest in thousands of pounds of kit in order to use videoconferencing and then have dedicated ISDN lines. However, today I've seen a demonstration of a video meeting using broadband/internet connections with four people happily participating. This was based on Microsoft's Livemeeting so it had whiteboarding and application sharing and it was combined with Arel anywhere video software. The clever thing about this setup was that the user just needs a PC, webcam and to download two small pieces of software. They can then log in to the servers (one button operation from Outlook) and use the meeting room. As with a physical meeting room it has to be booked and costs £50 per hour which is comparable to the cost of renting meeting space for a face to face meeting. Or for £6k per year you can have your own meeting room available whenever you wish.

I think this is the future! We will all think twice aboutravelingng to meet people if we can have a virtual meeting instead. But back to the present; we need to find ways of helping people to see the potential of virtual meetings and to try working differentlyUnfortunatelyey IT suppliers are often too busexplainingng the features of the product and thedon'tnt get to talk about the benefits for the user. Also IT departments can get in the way, refusing to let video traffic through the firewall and only allowing a standard package oapplicationsns on PC's. Then there are managers who don't want to let their people work remotely and HR people putting policies in the way of progress.

Despite the inertia I reckon we will all be using video calls/meetings in 5 years time.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Age Discrimination

It seems that Age Discrimination has hit the headlines in the UK recently with the introduction of legislation. Suddenly people are aware that older workers may still have something to contribute to the economy and need not be put out to graze in their 50's and 60's.

I think the emphasis is still too much on the 'fairness' issue, giving individual rights to be treated without discrimination. Employers shouldn't need to be forced by legislation to consider older workers, they should be encouraged to recognise that there is a pool of highly talented and able people who would like to work and who would be highly productive.

The problem is that older workers are often seen as more expensive than their younger colleagues. This comes from the hierarchical way we look at jobs in organisations. The longer you've been around, the more you get paid until you are eventually too expensive. There is very little opportunity to 'downshift' within organisations so people have to leave and find a 'lower level' job elsewhere.

Why can't employers encourage older employees to stay on and transition slowly to retirement over a number of years? It is ridiculous to say that one day before someone's 60th or 65th birthday they are fully employed and one day after they are no longer of any use. It is only because we have a rigid view of work that this happens.

With the demise of many pension schemes people will need to work longer to be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Why not have people working one or two day a week into their 80's? If they are going to live well into their 90's they will still have plenty of time for retirement! In 1948 we introduced retirement for males at 65 and females at 60. A man of 65 then would live on average for a further 12 years and now will live for 16; so to keep the length of retirement constant the state pension age should already be 69 for men. To meet our current drive for equality and have identical lengths of retirement, women should now be retiring at 72!

This is not just a financial issue. It also doesn’t make sense from a life cycle point of view. It is ridiculous that people work flat out during their 20s 30s and 40s at the same time as bringing up a family and then continue to work hard during their 40s and 50s at a time their own parents may need more care and attention. Then, just as these responsibilities disappear, they leave the workforce and enter a life of full-time leisure. Wouldn’t it make more sense if people enjoyed more time with their families during the earlier years and spread their working lives out a bit thinner. So instead of cramming work into 30 years why not spread it out over 50 or 60 and take life at a more leisurely pace?

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Welcome to my blog where I will be giving my views on the Future of Work.

This is a subject I've been passionate about for the last 20 years, having first seen the preview of new working practices using technology back in the 70's and 80's whilst working for Digital Equipment. Now we are living in the age of mobile technology we are seeing a massive change in the way information work can be achieved. But our ability to adopt new ways of working is dependent on human factors and inertia based on 200 years of working in the Industrial Age.

In this blog I will give my views on why we are reluctant to adopt new ways of working and invite comments in response. I hope it will be a lively debate or a least people will enjoy my thoughts on the topic.