Where are you going?

As I stood on the train platform this morning, I waited side by side with the same people that I stand with every morning, making their way in to our capital city to do business – we have a long, but a relatively straightforward commute.

Just before Christmas, I made the mistake of being in one our capital’s busiest train stations at rush hour and stood in a queue for the underground. Four or five trains must have past before I managed to even get to the front of the queue.

No, this isn’t a moan about the joys of commuting, (you can follow #traincrimes on Twitter for that) instead it started me thinking about the physical construction of our businesses and our locations and in particular the impact on health, wellbeing and productivity.

Let’s take an employee that lives in one of the commuter belts south of the city that serves that busy station, they have a house that they have a significant mortgage on, but they want a family and can’t afford to live in the centre and have enough room. So instead they buy an overpriced house within a “reasonable” commuting distance, but so does everyone else, so every morning they get on a train that doesn’t have enough seats and stand for forty minutes or so in to the centre where they queue for a tube train to take them another twenty minutes to their place of work.

In that hour and a bit, they’ve experienced, physical discomfort, stress, anxiety and pressure. And then they arrive at work, ready to earn a living and serve the company that employs them. How ready are they and how much are they really bringing to work? And multiply that by the number of employees in the building.

At the same time, the company itself is paying higher rent and rates, higher salaries and competing with a greater range of companies with a similar offering, all so that the employee can afford the overpriced house in the same commuter belt as every one else. All siting for the same fish in the same pool, all with the same challenges. What differentiates them?

And why do we do this? Well ask people and they’ll tell you that, “that’s where business is done”. But is it? We talk about operating in a global economy, we have meetings and conference calls around the world, we can connect with people from different countries and different continents at the click of a button. But if we want to do business, we need to be in the same place?

The economics just don’t make sense. How is it that the business that are supposed to be driven by capitalist virtue, don’t respond to market forces which would quite clearly drive a different agenda and a different set of behaviours? My guess is that there is something about the vested interests of the senior population.

We talk a lot about the correlation between the quality of workplace and the quality of work, but we seldom talk about the location of the workplace and the quality of life. People will jump to the simple (and incorrect) answer that we need to be allowing more people to work flexibly and encouraging remote working. The problem with this is you lose as much as you gain.

The future? It’s regional diversification. The economic arguments are clearly there, but moreover the employee benefits are also achievable – a rare alignment – which could be one of the keys to improved productivity. The clever are starting to understand that and the first movers will be the winners. But they’ll also realise that this isn’t just chasing cheaper rent – its changing your organisational model.