The new normal of travelling for work

16 June

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As businesses adapt to social distancing and the steady easing of lockdown measures, what does the ‘new normal’ of travelling for work look like?

Working Remotely

Most UK businesses were pushed into near-overnight adoption of remote working in March and, although lockdowns are easing, the government says it should continue to be the first option. It’s already the norm; less than half (39%) of non-furloughed staff are visiting their usual workplace, according to a recent CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development<) survey. There may be a limited appetite to go back to old habits, as new working practices prove their value.

“The migration to home working has been on the agenda of many organisations for some time, and the pandemic is likely to have accelerated this process by many years,” says Ian Featherstone, account manager, supply chain at the Energy Saving Trust. “Many have found [this] a welcome relief from travel, particularly those with long daily commutes. Online meetings and conferences are likely to be more prevalent in the future and also offer reduced costs, emissions and travel time for those involved.”

A Team Effort

Fleet and travel managers offer essential expertise as businesses develop new working patterns. Paul Hollick, co-chairman of the Association of Fleet Professionals, says it’s vital that they work hand-in-hand with office managers as businesses adopt more flexible workspaces, staggered arrival times and fewer staff on site. 

Modal change is likely; government guidelines suggest avoiding public transport unless absolutely necessary. If there is no alternative, travel plans may need to accommodate reduced capacity, longer journeys and social distancing. Paul Hollick continues: “Wellbeing and mental health will be important – making sure that people are mentally safe and feel comfortable about moving around if the business requires them to do so.”

Ian Featherstone believes reduced public transport use is a medium to long-term concern, but there are silver linings. “If tightly packed trains, buses and underground networks are to be avoided, then investment in capacity will ensure that passengers are able to travel in safety and comfort in the years ahead,” he says.

Careful Sharing

From early on in the pandemic vehicle rental was classed as an essential service, and the BVRLA has issued guidelines for providers on sanitisation and contactless handovers. Paul Hollick says businesses should discuss provisions with their suppliers if they have concerns.

“[Rental companies and car clubs] all made sure that they’re adopting the right hygiene policies, ensuring vehicles are cleaned regularly and adequate from a health and safety perspective. Work with your supply chain to make sure you feel comfortable that what that supplier is doing is still looking after your employees in the right way - which I'm sure they will be,” he says.

There could also be challenges for businesses operating pool cars, as they will be responsible for sanitising them between users. Hollick foresees some businesses downsizing or reallocating their pool fleet, with some moving to medium-term rentals for individual drivers as an alternative to public transport.

But, he says, it’s not likely to be a long-term trend: “We’re moving away from shared mobility to individual mobility with your own asset to be able to protect yourself. Which is a worry because the future should be shared mobility, but COVID-19 will slow that down. The desire is there, and I'm sure that it will come back stronger than ever once we get through this.”

Be Open to Grey Fleet:

Used car demand has proved more resilient than buying new; SMMT data shows 8.3% and 31.0% declines respectively during the first quarter of 2020. With restrictions on public transport, Hollick says cheap used cars could be a useful tool for getting the workforce mobile, though this reverses recent trends to reduce grey fleet. It’s of particular concern as employees with home-working contracts will be driving for business if they visit an office, and some may not be comfortable using short-term rentals.

“My personal view is grey fleet just needs to be managed effectively. Drivers must appreciate that there needs to be policies in place as if they were a company car driver, ensuring the vehicles are robust and safe, the driver has the right licence and the right insurance,” he says. “I think [fleet managers] need to accept [grey fleet] and develop policies to manage it in the right way.”

Greener Individual Travel:

Reduced mileage offers an opportunity to re-think the vehicles being used. Paul Hollick says AFP members are typically incentivising cycling as an alternative to cars, though short-distance commuting has reduced due to remote working. His expectation is that drivers might be more open to new technologies too.

“As the requirement to meet people, and particularly doing long business trips, reduces, that should become a sweet spot for people to say they can have an electric vehicle because they’re doing fewer trips, and these trips can be done in an EV now. With the government driving the agenda with low Benefit-in-Kind rates and, hopefully, some subsidies for adoption [as part of forthcoming economic stimuli] I think the EV agenda will just fly,” he explains.

Ian Featherstone agrees: “We are seeing interventions to make active travel both more convenient and safer, and these will go some way to reducing future crowding on commuter routes in particular. More efficient use of vehicles and electric cars and vans in particular also have a part to play in economic recovery. We have all adapted and learnt how to work this way, will we really want to revert back to business as was?”

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