Today, as millions of commuters in the UK experience travel chaos caused by an RMT railway strike, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a much smarter way to work and travel.
The industrial action comes after conductors for the Southern Rail network, which operates train routes through heavily-populated parts of South England and London, voted against proposals to introduce driver-only trains.
The strikers fear job losses if they are made ‘onboard supervisors’, tasked with playing a more visible role looking after passengers inside trains. They also claim passenger safety would be compromised by this move.
The train operator, Govia Thameslink Railway, meanwhile, has given assurances of no job losses or salary reductions, and says the change is now possible following CCTV and safety improvements on modern trains.
As always, it’s difficult to know who to believe. Removing the need to have a conductor on all trains must surely translate into fewer working hours for these staff members. If it doesn’t, we would have to question to commercial wisdom of the train operator. And, of course, having only the driver’s eyes looking out for passenger safety when boarding and alighting at unmanned stations must surely be less safe than two pairs of eyes. How much less safe is a fierce point of debate.
The Madness of Modern Commuting
But it’s the madness of modern commuting that falls most sharply into focus for me when confronted with an intractable labour dispute that results in the misery of strike action. For me, the concept of a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 working day, seems wholly inconsistent with our digitally-connected, technology-powered world.
You have to look back to 1926 to remember when the 5-day working week was popularised when Henry Ford decided to close his automobile factories on Saturday and Sunday. By the 1940s, the 5-day week had largely been adopted across western industrialised nations, and the two-day weekend became a legal entitlement in many countries.
The 9 to 5 working day, meanwhile, is more loosely applied around the world, and is little more than a convenient way to divide each day into 8 hours to work, leaving a further 8 hours for recreation and 8 for restful sleep. That’s the theory at least, but anyone who commutes regularly will know how much of their so-called recreation time ends up being spent moving to and from their place of work.
Of course, there are some jobs where workers simply have to be in a specific location at a fixed time of day. Nurses, builders, and retail staff will be, forever, tied to a rota where they are expected to be in work, on duty at scheduled times.
But there are many more jobs where staff could have far greater flexibility to perform their work functions when and where they wish. We refer to these people as “knowledge workers” (KWs) and their jobs pricipally involve handling or using information. Accountants, engineers, and marketers are all KWs and, with the right managerial support, they could have the choice to choose their working hours instead of being enslaved to a rigid 9 to 5 obligation from our pre-industrialised past.
So, imagine this. What if all the knowledge workers changed their commuting habits and only travelled to the office outside of peak rush hours? What if they were given permission, even actively rewarded, to work away from the office at least once a week? What if those of us who can found a better way to shape the working week by exercising our right to choose our working days and hours?
I suspect the impact on our lives and society as a whole could be profound. With fewer people commuting at peak times there would be far less pressure on our travel networks. With less travelling, the dream of an 8-hour working day, balanced with the same amount of both recreation and rest, might just become a possibility. Millions of KWs could work differently; what’s stopping you from making a change?
You are Part of the Solution
Part of the solution to our overcrowded travel infrastructure lies not in more and longer trains, or bigger, more efficient buses, it lies in passengers exercising more intelligent choices about how and when they travel. And travel providers, like Southern Railway, have a responsibility to encourage and positively reward people for being smarter with their choices.
Perhaps that’s a useful role that the new ‘Onboard Supervisors’ could play in the future: chatting with passengers and helping them find better ways to get from A to B, easing congestion on busy routes, and increasing passenger safety. I also suspect that the most enlightened travel operators will ultimately be those who thrive in the long run, guaranteeing the future prosperity of their company and the job prospects for their staff.
So, as the first of several planned railway strikes wreaks havoc on millions of commuters’ plans, what changes could you make today to bring long-term balance to your working life?