Weak connections and strong flavours: thoughts on transport, work and meetings with strangers

The future of London's transportation system.

TfL – coming soon

Sometimes you just have to let ideas simmer, their flavours intermingle and infuse. So I’ve been letting the themes from a few recent events percolate before writing them down. There was the Radius Business Event on London versus the World – actually a colloquium on London’s transport prospects. The BCS North London meeting about Innovation through Collaboration and the Warwick Business School’s Dean’s Event. Sometimes the stock of your ideas becomes so concentrated that its taste overpowers: I’m probably guilty of over-seasoning what I took away from the Tech Marketers’ meeting and neglecting some of the subtler flavours that event offered yesterday.

Back to transport. The Radius meeting looked at the shape of London’s transport infrastructure in years to come. I’m sure I am like many Londoners in my surprise at how far London’s bus, underground and train system has come in the last ten years. The Radius panel highlighted that there is still far to go – the number of Londoners and journeys we are making is increasing.

Why should it be? As a central Londoner and a homeworker I consider myself fortunate that I can avoid the crushed, damp, sweaty horror of the morning and evening tube rush hour. I’m sure my fellow passengers are pleased to avoid me too. I don’t need to be where they’re all going at the same time as them. And I can walk to most destinations. Why can’t that be the experience for more Londoners?

Firstly, the technology should allow many more of us to work at home – at least for part of the day. Being in the office, just to open your laptop, plug in your earphones and start typing is about as out of date as the bowler hat and pinstripe trousers of the 1960s commuter.

All right, I’ll give you that people do need to meet. In fact, they enjoy meeting. I miss meeting my colleagues. But it’s surely not beyond the wit of humankind to stagger when those meetings take place so that we can smooth out the traffic peaks and troughs throughout the day. Apparently, we now make as many trips on Saturday and Sundays as during the week. But we do it over the period of the whole day – not packed into a couple of hours in the morning and evening. That’s why it feels like a pleasanter experience.

Speaking of Saturdays and Sundays: it’s occurred to me that if we spread the five day working week over the whole seven days, we could cut congestion by about 20%. Apart from spreading the traffic load, I can see some real advantages to a metropolis working the whole week.

  • You’d be able to get anything done, at a time that suited you. You wouldn’t be off at the same time as your bank.
  • More profoundly, it would force companies to think about how they structure work. I’ve known a few people who job-shared and it turned out to be an extremely good experience, not just for them but also for the people that worked with them. The point about job-sharing is that there is hand-over. So the work gets done in a more transparent way so that one person can pick it up cleanly from the next. No more waiting for Danny to get back from holiday or, worse, forcing Danny to come in from holiday to sort something out. The five-over-seven-day week would ensure that jobs were properly shared. And as we all need to work longer and, hopefully, more flexibly into our old age, it would mean that there were more jobs to go round.

Finally – why travel such large distances anyway? Why are all the banks clustered in Canary Wharf? This isn’t one of the guilds from mediaeval Florence. There really is no reason why people’s offices shouldn’t be better distributed around the metropolis.

That leads to the question: what sort of offices should those be anyway? A head office in suburban metroland is going to be a long way for some people to travel. The head office is a pretty antiquated concept too. Its primary purpose in many of the companies that I observe is to act as the intense focus of the branches’ resentment. And to serve as the repository of headquarters staff’s complaints that their good intentions towards their colleagues are much misunderstood.

No, we need different types of offices in the 21st century. No more satellites or black holes – more constellations.

Which leads me to the thoughts that I ingested from the other meetings around creativity and innovation. The most fruitful meetings that I have are not with my direct colleagues but with people who work in different fields and, especially, different companies. The best thing that I got from my MBA was the chance to see how other people tackle their organisations’ problems and learn from the resemblances and differences to my own. It’s a phenomenon that Marc Granovetter described in his 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties; the innovation and creativity that come from contact with people you know superficially. Something else that I picked up from my MBA.

The BCS meeting demonstrated the different perspective that students can bring to a company’s challenges. The tech marketers’ meeting, at least partly, reminded me that one of the greatest assets that companies have in marketing their products is the experience of their customers. In this age of social, we need companies to play a role in bringing their customers together.

So it should be with offices. The hub phenomenon, springing up in a neighbourhood near you, really should be the future. A space that’s just a saunter away from your home for those times when the blandishments of daytime TV start to waylay your efforts to get your work done. A space where you can go and rub shoulders with people that you hardly know at all. Because those are the people that will stimulate you to think differently – to take a look at problems from the outside-in rather than be stifled by corporate orthodoxy. People who might not yet be your customers but who very well could be.

And so to tastes – strong or strange. I accept that you might prefer the stimulation of rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with your fellow commuters in the dank, fetid tunnels of subterranean London. I suspect London may have some clubs that cater to your peculiar tastes. Hopefully, I’ll be taking a short walk to work in the opposite direction and seeking my (cerebral) stimulation among strangers.

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