What the endless debate about HS2 can teach us about how we work

A man working on a train

A man working on a train

One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate about whether the UK should spend £50 billion (or whatever you think it might be) on the new HS2 rail network, is the way in which it has formed a touchstone for a discussion about how we work. But people on both sides of this debate can have things either spectacularly or misguidedly wrong. On one side, the people behind the scheme, including the Government, used the jaw-dropping assumption that nobody worked on trains as the foundation of a business case. That was the familiar sight of large organisations working their relentless way towards a number they wanted, regardless of inconvenient facts. This idea has now been so widely discredited and mocked that it has been dropped completely from the latest business case, tellingly the sixth in just three years. And yet on the other side, we have people arguing that we should travel less and use videoconferencing as an alternative to face to face meetings, which can be almost as problematic.

Up to now, videoconferencing has had a negligible impact on the need for people to travel. There are a number of reasons for this. People like meeting other people in person at least some of the time. They do this because they understand instinctively that it is better for relationships and for reasons of what the author Greg Lindsay, who is one of the speakers at this year’s Worktech in London, describes as ‘engineering serendipity’; the chance for something unexpected to happen is far more likely with random encounters than it is with a remote meeting with an agenda and people you know. A full interview with Greg will be published on Insight tomorrow.

Videoconferencing technology has also yet to win the world over. It can be expensive, unreliable (especially in its free forms such as Skype), insufficiently immersive, suffers from the failure of vendors to provide full interoperability between systems (particularly important if companies want to link to clients) and has yet to make the crossover into smartphones and tablets. That is all changing, but it is taking time and is still reliant on external factors such as available bandwidth and adoption of Cloud based technology.

Even when we cross the videoconferencing event horizon, it is likely that things on the other side will not be quite as we expect. The law of unintended consequences is notoriously applicable when it comes to the way we use technology and its impact on how and where we work.

One important thing we have learned this year is that it is foolish to assume that there is an evolution in the way we work towards a universally acknowledged paradigm. The examples of Yahoo and HP in reversing their own shift towards a more remote workforce provide just the most high profile examples of what can happen when organisations try to resolve the temporal and spatial tensions of the modern workplace.

Given the sheer complexity and occasional impossibility of adapting to a business model that assumes ‘work is what you do, not where you go’, it’s no wonder firms can be tempted to fall back on the tried and tested model of having everybody working in one place all at the same time as much as they possibly can.

There is clearly a balance to be struck in resolving these tensions and that in turn depends on factors such as organisational culture, market sector, business model, lines of communication, nature of the workforce and umpteen other things. Which is why when we discuss how we work in the context of issues such as modes of transport, we should never assume that one way of working is a replacement for another. It’s an alternative. And what type of choice it provides depends on too many things for us to draw simplistic conclusions.