Traffic and sustainable workplaces

In his previous article for SHEQ Management VITTORIO BOLLO argued that the modern scourge that is traffic is both ecologically unsound and plays havoc on employees’ stress levels and general health and wellbeing

But what concrete measures can employers take to minimize this dirge of Malthusian proportions? It is on this theme that I wish to expand, by exploring a few possibilities.

Many South African workers do have to work in shifts, but a sizable majority of those who are not self-employed find themselves with working hours set, usually very rigidly and as if the Eleventh Commandment, at 08:00 – 17:00. Take an hour here or an hour there earlier or later for some people, but most work in that 8-5 cycle. It is this work cycle that is the very germination of that dreaded (and dreadful) peak-hour traffic every morning and every late afternoon/early evening each and every workday.
Employers need to more fully embrace flexible working hours or flexitime. It’s very simple. The working day can have a ‘core’ period (usually 10:00 to 15:00) in which all employees should be in the workplace and, therefore, allow for meetings, required group work, and other requirements. Around that core time of the day employees are allowed to work flexibly.
Some will choose to work from 06:00 – 15:00, others from 07:00 – 16:00 and there’ll be those that’ll relish working from 09:00 – 18:00, or even 10:00 – 19:00. Just think of call centre operators who are available until 22:00.
And why not? This concept of flexible working hours, pioneered by the Germans and called Gleitzeit, works remarkably well in many continental European countries and the United States, all of them with far better productivity rates than those of South Africa. According to award-winning Irish consultancy, Flextime, research shows “a direct connection between employee morale and the provision of flexible working hours/ flextime.”
Their study proved that when an organisation acknowledges the so-called “work vs. life conflict” that employees face and provides flexible working hours as a support mechanism for an employee, “then the employee will ‘reciprocate’ with a new and more positive attitude to work and to the workplace.” It’s the workplace quid pro quo of the modern era.
There are employers in this country that do offer it, but it still remains the exception rather than the rule. Allowing employees to have working times that are more aligned to their family and personal needs is treating them like adults and taking better heed of what is increasingly being known as essential for any productive person, a healthy balance between work and leisure/personal time. Not to mention, surely, less intense peak hour traffic and more flow of traffic throughout the day. To put it bluntly – stop the 8-5 obsessive-compulsion.

It made far more sense for people to have to work in offices and other set workplaces 20, 30 and more years ago. Communication like the land-based telephone, fax and telex tended to be static, and did not easily allow for people to work remotely or ‘away from the office.’ That is, before the advent of the Information Age and all the technology that forms our daily lives in the second decade of the 21st century. The internet and cellular technology has made communication far more accessible and mobile. Wireless applications are making that technology even broader, faster and even less geographically bound.
Yet, even with all this fast-evolving technology, there continues to be strong resistance in most sectors to allowing some employees to work remotely, for example, from a home office, also commonly known as ‘telecommuting’. The same goes for other flexible schemes like compressed work weeks and job-sharing.
Certainly control plays a significant role. Many in management tend to believe that employees who are directly ‘visible’ and stuck in an office are more easily controlled. That argument, which is retrograde ‘old-school’ thinking at best, falls entirely flat when it’s argued that office-based workers are somehow more ‘productive’ than those who work at home. Studies proving the contrary abound.
After all, why should functions that rely mostly on technology have to be performed in a corporate office environment? Why is there an immediate assumption that home-based workers will be less ‘focused’ on, or less ‘accountable’ for, their work? Accountability for work can easily be done remotely, especially in this day and age. A simple solution is to make work entirely project-based and deadline-driven, rather than predicated on a set job description and pre-determined amount of working hours, which in any case do not necessarily equate to better productivity and only create more traffic as more employees have to commute to and from their workplaces.

The mind-set should be simple enough – traffic is bad for the environment. Therefore, all reasonable and practical attempts must be made by any employer to ensure that an anti-traffic mind-set prevails in the workplace; hence any advocacy for traffic-easing measures like flexitime and telecommuting. Companies need to be creative and think ‘green’ and even ‘wellness’ at all times when it comes to traffic and commuting. For example, incentives can be given to those employees who carpool with other employees, or who even use public transport to get to work. The latter is made difficult by the near-total absence of any comprehensive, meaningful and safe public transport system in most of this country’s cities (a fact that is to the eternal shame of all South African governments to date), but there is no denying that those who do use public transport are creating less traffic by doing so.
Of course, not all work allows for flexible job design. You cannot easily work a mine on a flexitime basis (or at least not those who are involved in the physical mining or supervision thereof), nor will it be easily accomplished in many manufacturing workplaces. That goes without saying. It is even recognized that flexible work arrangements, like remote offices, are not always appropriate for all people, jobs (how does one make a product ‘remotely’?), or industries. It could be disastrous for some employees, as certain personality types could not cope with the greater self-discipline required of a home office, for example.
However, neither should one rubbish or dismiss these traffic-easing workplace arrangements merely because they may not work for all, or are not applicable to all job types. The South African economy is increasingly services-oriented and knowledge-based, even within traditional sectors. More and more workers are office-based or working at a desk for most of the time. Production has become far more mechanised, thus far less beholden to the strictures of shift work. So why not be more flexible and dynamic in the work design of employees?
Excuses as to why we continue to be stuck in the 8-5 rut are just that – excuses. Change is always difficult and always requires a leap of faith. This is no less true for this issue. As John Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” We need to change our attitude to traffic – entirely. This must and will include the very way in which many people work. The moment the paradigm shifts from that of thinking of traffic as a ‘necessary evil’ to that of it as an ‘unacceptable evil’, then the innovative ideas will flow and the changes be made. Mind-set is everything.


Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He has recently joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, in which he will continue to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.

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