Why a more flexible approach to where and when we work is long overdue

Virgin's flexible work initiative makes sense when you learn average British commute is increasingAs Virgin boss Richard Branson throws his considerable influence behind flexible working, with the revelation that his personal staff can now take time off whenever they want for as long as they want; new research published for National Work Life Week illustrates why we need a more flexible approach to where and when we work. The average British one-way commute has increased in the last couple of years, at nearly half an hour (29.6 minutes) compared to 26 minutes two years ago. Employees in large firms appear to endure the longest commutes, clocking up a one-way average of 39 minutes. The knock-on effect means over-crowded trains, roads and buses and an increasingly stressed workforce more prone to stress and ill-health. Branson has promised to extend the policy if, as he notes in his blog, it results in similar productivity gains as Netflix, which has pioneered this approach.

“The Netflix initiative had been driven by a growing groundswell of employees asking about how their new technology-controlled time on the job (working at all kinds of hours at home and/or everywhere they receive a business text or email) could be reconciled with the company’s old-fashioned time-off policy:” explains Branson in his blog.

“That is to say, if Netflix was no longer able to accurately track employees’ total time on the job, why should it apply a different and outmoded standard to their time away from it?”

When you look at it from that perspective, it does seem quite antiquated that the average working day still requires people to travel into work at around the same time each day to perform many of the same functions they might easily perform at home – or an office nearer to home.

A quarter of the 3,600 business people canvassed in Regus’ research said that their journey to work took between thirty and sixty minutes, with 15 per cent regularly travelling for over an hour each way. Previous research from Regus has shown that over two fifths of flexible workers put in longer hours when they don’t have to commute every day, highlighting the link between flexible working and productivity.

In that study, nearly eight out of ten respondents in large firms, and seven out of ten in SMEs, agreed that managers are most likely to consider employees arriving early and leaving late as the most hard-working. Only two fifths of employees in large firms reported that managers in their company are being recognised and rewarded for encouraging flexible working, compared to just over half in small firms.

Steve Purdy, Managing Director at Regus, commented, “Cutting lengthy journeys to work should be top priority for any work-life balance initiative, which means offering staff a choice in where and when they work.”

One example of a small company that has reaped the benefits of cutting unnecessary commutes is Lucid Communications, a communications consultancy in West London. During the recession the firm adopted a virtual business model, using a Virtual Office from Regus, dispensing with their old full-time physical office in Chiswick.

Paul Townsend, Director, said, “The decision to close our office was initially cost-driven, but it quickly proved to be an all-round better and healthier way of working. The time we save on commuting translates into extra family time, or sometimes extra work time, and we feel less stressed and more motivated.

“Working remotely actually galvanised the team, as it requires greater effort to communicate effectively and that brought new discipline and focus. We don’t miss our old office at all.”