The nature of work is changing fast. Online working, flexible hours, the rise of self-employment and outsourcing are shifting working needs away from conventional 9am-5pm employment patterns. At the same time, these trends are creating an increasingly virtual and varied working environment, forcing changes in the design of the modern office and a rethinking of its purpose. The implications for urban design and travel patterns, including the traditional ‘rush hour’, could be profound and the need to understand the impacts of these changes is greater than ever.
To debate these important questions the ITC hosted a Discussion Evening on 21st October 2015 chaired by ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret OBE. More than 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a distinguished panel of experts, including Amanda Rowlatt CBE, Director of Strategy at the Department for Transport; Professor Jeremy Myerson, Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art; and Nicola Gillen, Director of Strategy Plus at AECOM.
The Guest speakers focused on a number of key issues:
- Amanda Rowlatt explained how changing working practices had affected travel patterns over recent decades. She reported that statistics showed that since 2003 flexible working had been increasing and at the same time part-time work had grown relative to full-time employment. As a result, only 49% of full time workers now commuted 5 days a week or more, and 17% were not travelling to work at all. This was reflected in a 20% fall in commuting trip rates over the two decades prior to 2010, although the absolute number of commuting trips had only marginally declined since the absolute number of people in work had increased significantly over the same period. She also explained how changing working patterns had affected peak flows on the transport network. Over the past quarter century she observed that the working day had lengthened slightly but in spite of more flexible working practices there remained the same concentration of travel in the morning and evening peak. Ms Rowlatt also observed that there had been a marked increase in the proportion of trips to and from work that include taking children to and from school. She concluded by noting that policy makers were keenly interested in how to smooth out peak flows.
- Professor Myerson focused on the ways in which work had changed in the era of the knowledge economy. He pointed out that work was increasingly becoming ‘something we do rather than somewhere we go’, and as such was based more on networks than machines. The resulting dislocation of traditional working patterns was leading to more dynamic journeys. Although he predicted that overall travel would increase, it would also become more difficult to predict these non-linear travel patterns. The workplace was also becoming a social landscape, rather than a place for concentration; and as such the city itself was becoming the domain of work (rather than out-of town offices), illustrated by the rise in co-working and flexible working spaces, often in proximity to major transport hubs. Professor Myerson also pointed to the growth of productive travel, using the vehicle or the train as a place of work, and suggested that transport had an important role in fostering this development.
- Nicola Gillen explored how the changing workplace was affecting movement. She noted that for the first time four generations were operating in the workplace at the same time, and explained that there were similarities between the oldest (baby boomer) and youngest (millennial) categories in their attitudes and freedom with their time, in contrast to the middle generations with more responsibilities for families and mortgages. She pointed out various relevant trends, including the digitisation of work, the flexibility of IT and the socialisation of the workplace. As a result, people now worked across a network of places, while office desk space is only occupied 42% of the time, presenting new challenges for the design of buildings. She suggested that mixed uses within buildings and a wrap-around public realm would result in more favourable environments for work, and that transport was also becoming a place for concentrated work. These developments were likely to continue as we became better at managing people offsite, and as pressure increased to release time for productive purposes.
Some key themes emerged during the subsequent discussion. It was noted that the desire to work while travelling was increasing, and delegates suggested that transport providers should take this into account when designing passenger vehicles. Similarly, working patterns and their travel impacts differ by region, which raises the importance of understanding working patterns when planning housing developments. Guests observed that we needed to anticipate whether structural changes in employment would continue, and whether real-time data, such as that held by Google, could helpfully be used to understand working patterns better. It is clear that we need to seize opportunities for managing peak travel hours with more flexible travel options, such as part-time season tickets, or greater use of real-time information to help smooth travel flows. Drawing from recent research, some delegates noted that full-time homeworkers still expressed a desire to move and get out of their homes each day, which could have benefits for the local economy, with meetings taking place in public venues, cafes or hubs. Finally, attendees pointed out that working patterns could be affected by disruptive events or shocks. The 2012 London Olympics and recent transport strikes were cited as examples where citizens had been forced to reconsider their travel and working patterns in order to bypass problems with their usual means of transport. As a result, people had developed more flexible approaches to their working practices, or changed how and when they travelled: effects which in some cases resulted in long-term behaviour change.