IMPLEMENTING RESEARCH-BASED STAFF TRANSPORT POLICIES, Written by Andrew Smith, Andrew Smith Research
CASE STUDY: NEW SUPER-JUMBOS MAY CATCH THE MEDIA’S ATTENTION, BUT STAFF RESEARCH AT VIRGIN ATLANTIC IS GUIDING MORE EVERYDAY TRAVEL TO WORK POLICIES. ANDREW SMITH EXPLAINS
Global air transport demand has returned to strong growth over the last two years following the crisis period after 9-11. Our Government’s 2003 white paper forecast that UK air passenger numbers would more than double over the next 25 years. This predicted massive increase means that the Government and airline industry have to face difficult questions about longer-term environmental sustainability.
One important focus is the design of the next generation of increasingly environmentally-friendly long-haul jets. Richard Branson has grabbed headlines with plans for super-sized jumbos with casinos and night clubs, whilst other manufacturers explore options for faster, smaller jets. But on the ground equally valid concerns are growing about road traffic congestion in the vicinity of major airports. As they become ever busier, such congestion adds considerably to local noise and emissions concerns, not to mention time delays. Major airport vicinity employers such as Virgin Atlantic Airways are having to take a hard look at staff travel to work policies, both for the good of the environment and mindful of the potential for better staff and corporate welfare.
Virgin Atlantic employs over 8,000 UK staff, split evenly between ground and flight crew and based mainly in the Gatwick and Heathrow areas. As in most service sector companies the success of the business is reliant on satisfied and healthy staff to a large extent. The cost and stress of journeys to work and during the working day can have a considerable impact on their morale.
With no existing data on staff behaviour and attitudes towards journeys to work, Virgin Atlantic worked with Andrew Smith Research to get the insight it lacked. This was needed both as evidence for an external transport policy document about plans to meet environmental obligations, and to support internal actions that could improve journeys, staff satisfaction and well-being. Our research used an online survey sent to all UK based staff, plus follow-up group discussions involving over 70 individuals to gain a more in-depth understanding.
The online survey required about 10 minutes to complete, necessitating a lively, mixed question style to engage staff and keep their attention and interest. We also requested several open text answers to fully appreciate the extent of feelings and capture suggestions. As Peter Hutton noted (Analysis, Research Dec. 2005) it’s essential to use such a question mix if employees are to feel valued, and empowered to fully express opinions.
CAR IS KING
Nationally over 70% of people drive to work and the Government estimates that car use will increase by 43% over the next 15 years (Daily Telegraph, 13th December 2005)! This is a sobering thought, yet few of us who drive to work actively consider if we would change travel behaviour, because the incentive is rarely strong enough. At Virgin Atlantic, 8 out of 10 ground based staff and 2 out of 3 flight crew drive to work. The survey was able to map comprehensively where staff drive from by department or work location, plus quantify stated limitations on transport choice such as shift times and taking children to school.
Despite the many practical and often personal preference barriers expressed, research showed that significant potential existed for reducing single-occupancy car journeys - especially in Crawley and Brighton where many Gatwick area ground staff live. We confirmed that a quarter of all these staff live within 5 miles of work around Gatwick yet drive to work. This fact alone encouraged the company to work more closely with local bus operators, and use research evidence to negotiate possible discount schemes with them. But of course many staff would still find it impractical not to drive. For these our main focus remained how to most effectively encourage car sharing and quantify its potential.
There is a major gap between supporting the principle of car sharing and serious consideration of take-up. This was evident in this project and almost certainly is mirrored in the working population at large. Two thirds of Virgin Atlantic’s workforce agreed that ‘I like the principle of car sharing, but don’t think it’s practical for me’. However various inducements can make a tremendous difference to inertia towards sharing and tested strongly in our research, such as offering a guaranteed parking space at the busiest offices!
Open-text comments provided considerable understanding of the advantages and concerns that staff felt about car share, and some excellent suggestions. Such comments are especially useful when looked at by location and job sub-groups by local managers – perhaps in a simple spreadsheet format. For example:
‘I think the car sharing scheme is a good idea. If Virgin could provide us with information on individuals who live near, we could then contact them. I would appreciate not paying out so much on petrol’
‘As a tax payer both through road tax and petrol tax I don't see why I should car share’
‘Having always been independent I think I might find it restricting. Would there be a backup if one of you went sick? However, I do think we need to do something’
Faced with severe parking restrictions and congestion at main work-places, Virgin Atlantic and many other airport employers are finding that doing nothing is not an option. Instead, providing solutions may not be that costly, and can have unforeseen staff morale and retention benefits. Virgin Atlantic is now looking at ways to make it easier to locate other sharers with software that links car share preferences and HR management information.
Whilst car share options are relatively clear cut for daily-driving ground staff, the issues affecting flight crew are of a different scale and complexity. This is due to the bigger distances usually travelled to work and the journey time and rostering concerns around long-haul flight patterns. The survey also gave Virgin Atlantic a wealth of other flight-crew data, not all of which was anticipated:
‘The group discussions were very useful in understanding flight crew attitudes to car share – although they are the most geographically dispersed sector of the workforce, they could see significant benefits in car sharing, in terms of reduced petrol costs and company on long drives home’
Sian Foster, project manager at Virgin Atlantic
WHAT FUTURE FOR TRAIN AND BUS?
The way we under-use public transport for journeys to work as a nation – and the reasons for this - is a considerable debate: only 6% of us take the train to work and 8% take the bus (Daily Telegraph, 13th December 2005). At Virgin Atlantic there are good transport links to both major airport work hubs. But the research revealed considerable ignorance of public transport options and of fare concessions already available to airport based staff. As a result the airline is working on more effective internal communications, including travel to work information points in office receptions.
Research has helped provide evidence for a variety of internal business cases and external negotiations. We quantified where more frequent company-provided bus transport would be most cost effective, and where the weakest public transport links were.
Open questions can be extremely useful for highlighting unexpected issues. For example, concerns surfaced amongst female flight crew about gaining unwanted attention attracted by their uniform when on public transport! Whilst no obvious solutions were suggested, it was important for the company to appreciate this issue and how it discouraged public transport use.
The project made clear that successful car sharing needed more flexibility on behalf of team managers, including a higher priority to roster car-sharers together. This is not easy to achieve when efficient flight crew rostering is a highly sophisticated process already, but it could be more achievable for ground-based teams.
Virgin Atlantic’s reputation has always been modern and open, and this is reflected in staff communication channels. The most used is naturally the intranet, also now accessible by all flight crew at the airport staff areas before flights, as well as over the internet. As a result of the survey, significant input is being made to intranet information content and the way this is organised and signposted.
The success of any staff dialogue or survey – and their willingness to co-operate with future research initiatives – rests on the actions management take and the improvements seen as a result. Fortunately this is one client that will not sit on its hands and ignore survey evidence:
‘This research has been used as strong evidence to support the business case for investing in options such as staff shuttle buses from Gatwick to the major office sites in Crawley’
Sian Foster, Virgin Atlantic
IDEAS TO ENSURE SUCCESSFUL STAFF RESEARCH
1. Use experienced researchers with sector and technique experience.
2. Smaller, independent researchers have the ability to deliver maximum insight and value because they retain hands-on control of all parts of the project, including any depth and group discussions.
3. Staff surveys need to vary question types so that employees feel empowered and engaged by the survey process. Include some open questions on structured surveys. The ability for team managers to then read detailed suggestions lends immeasurable value to reporting.
4. Some element of discussion – whether small groups or one to one – is highly desirable, even if the main requirement is for large sample survey evidence.
5. For harder to reach staff, think carefully about where and how to engage with them best. For example, senior flight crew proved to be difficult to pre-book, but spur of the moment invitations to join a short discussion whilst waiting for a flight were highly successful.
6. The attention-grabbing and diagnostic power of audio and video recordings at debriefs cannot be understated, and the additional costs of using such methods can be modest.
7. Talk about different options for feeding information back to the workforce and how you can be involved, including newsletter pieces; website copy; staff meetings or conferences.
Andrew Smith works with transport, leisure and media companies, and is a member of the Independent Consultants Group (ICG)
Andrew Smith Researchhttp://www.andrewsmithresearch.co.uk/
Office: +44 (0)1372 817979