Blog / Don't let the Train make you Strain

Nigel Taylor
November 12, 2010

On Monday I was standing on a packed train looking out at a platform full of glum people expecting to be able to get on the train. No chance! At least I am slowly heading in the right direction unlike those poor people standing on a cold and wet platform wondering if they will ever get a train. My train is running thirty minutes late already due to overrunning engineering works. And the delay ends up being over an hour as the overcrowding has caused a passenger to collapse so we need to wait for paramedics. All of us were very late that day.

If you exclude the really long delays it is common to have 10 or 15 minutes which add up over time. Very few trains seem to be able to run exactly on time. Meetings are missed. Hundreds of hours are wasted. All thanks to our unreliable transport infrastructure. People may work later, but that just means that their overall day is longer, so they will be tired and frustrated.

Even when the trains are running on time it is not a cheap option in monetary terms. Trains must be greener than cars but still have an impact on the environment. It still adds extra hours to people’s days when they could be working or relaxing.

With all the recent advances of technology it is easier than ever to talk remotely. Apple Macs come with iChat. People are using video chat like Skype more and more in their private lives. Instant Messaging allows you to ask someone a quick question like you may to a colleague at a nearby desk. With screen sharing it is even possible to pair program remotely. We have done it. In the early days of Unboxed Consulting before we had a proper office we used to work from home most of the time. As well as telephone we made a lot of use of iChat on the Mac for IM and video conferencing. It worked well for us and allowed us to work together across continents.

There does seem to be an idea that if you aren’t around you aren’t really working. My own experience is that when working from home I often end up doing a much longer day than I would in the office. But once you take the travelling off I still end up with more personal time. I think when working from home you actually feel guilty if you get distracted. You get distracted in offices too but because you are in the office don’t feel the same way about it. Also the home environment can actually be less of a distraction. There aren’t other people around to disturb you, you don’t get to hear their phone calls, their visitors. There have been offices I have gone to where you can turn up, do your work, and leave with no one bothering to see what you are doing. Those days I could just as easily have worked from home.

The extra freedom will make people happier and that too should make them more productive. There are companies out there that take this even further and don’t even worry when you do your work. Want to have a very long lunch? Work in the evening. Want to spend some time with the kids?  Work when they have gone to bed. There is an excellent book by Ricardo Semler called “Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace” which is well worth a read if you are interested in finding out more.

It is also easier if you get paid by what you do rather than how many hours you spend in the office. In the world of agile you can use the points you allocate to a story to help with this. We make a commitment to do a certain number of points. If we don’t manage to meet the commitment we won’t get paid so much. This really means it doesn’t matter where you are working. It is the end result that matters. Daily stand ups also mean you know what someone is doing so you will quickly find out if they are making progress or not. With agile because you are part of a team you also have a responsibility to them to make sure you do your share of the work.

There will always be employees who prefer the office environment, and times when face to face meetings are inevitable. Some employees live near the office so the commute is not an issue, but they may still like to work from home. What is needed is flexibility so employees can work in the way that works best for everyone. Companies can have smaller offices, and the impact on the environment will be less so they can be greener.

After I had written this I read about this in a newspaper: Commute times to work finally starting to decline, says TUC on the TUC website.