We go to work, despite the jams
But why do we still do it? Why do we put ourselves through the agony of commuting? It is one of the great mysteries of the modern world, and a rebuke to the futurologists. Do you remember all those people – about five or 10 years ago – who said we were going to be working from home?
They had every reason to be confident of their predictions. We have the gizmos to make it so simple, if we choose. We have computers and broadband and high-speed access to Skype and all the technology a man could need if he chose to stick at home with his wifi.
They said that, in a few years’ time, we would all be tele-cottaging and distance-working and generally interfacing from afar, and what utter tripe they talked.
Almost every day we see an increase in the tide of humanity that washes over the landscape. Last year alone, the numbers of passengers travelling by train grew by 6.7 per cent – double the rate predicted by Government.
The number of Tube journeys is set to rise from one billion to 1.5 billion a year. The number of car passenger journeys rises inexorably, we endure longer and longer traffic jams, and in an effort to escape the congestion, more and more of us enjoy the Palio of cycling in London – and all for what?
So that we can get into an office, and have a meeting in which the prime topic of conversation will be when to have another meeting; and in spite of all the opportunities to put our feet up chez nous and take it easy, surrounded by our own half-drunk cups of coffee, and refreshed by raids on our own fridge, the number of women working from home is still a piffling two per cent of the workforce, and the number of men working from home is still one per cent – and hasn’t even gone up in the past few years.
Why do we do it? Why do we chivvy ourselves out of the house and plunge into the mad Limpopo of the transport system, roaring with blocked hippos and fuming crocs? Well, as a keen student of human nature, I would say there are two broad reasons.
The first is that we may not like work very much, but we do like our offices. The office is the natural habitat of Homo sapiens. It is the place we like to go during the day, just as baboons choose to congregate on some special kop or crag.
Like baboons, we go there to groom and to socialise. We find that we need the tension and the jokes, not to mention the acrimony and the rivalry and the tears, and frankly no amount of electronic interchange is a substitute for that ability to gossip and plot.
We need to henpeck and to be henpecked; we need to read our fortunes in the eyes of others, and we need to feel ourselves physically inserted into a hierarchy because otherwise – alas – we have this floaty feeling that we don’t really exist; and no matter how bad it is being a cog in the machine, it’s better than being a discarded cog at the side of the road.
Which brings me to the second big reason why we all commute, when modern technology would easily permit us to stay at home, and that is that working at home is so supremely dispiriting.
You know what happens. You get up, slightly later than normal, with that languorous feeling that you are going to be “working from home”.
Instead of crashing into the shower and getting on with the day, you find that you linger, unshaven, for too long over the newspapers; and you find yourself so sunk in consequent gloom that you decide to fortify yourself with another cup of coffee, and a quick squint at BBC News 24, and then you conclude that you really must hit the desk.
And as you drift towards your workstation, your eye is caught by some title in your bookshelf and you settle down to read and – bang – by the time you look up, the morning has gone.
Deprived of that vital stimulus of competition, your mental flywheel is hardly turning, and why should it? There is no one to impress, no one to intrigue against, no one to worry about; and that is the real problem with working from home.
The beauty of an office is that it creates terrors of one kind or another, while at home you are obliged to cudgel your own flanks, to create your own fear – and, in the stupor of your domestic surroundings, you fail to make the leap of imagination.
You polish off that bottle of wine at lunch, and then you have a snooze, and then you find the afternoon has gone as fast as the morning, and the children are back from school, and you have managed to spend a whole day “working from home” in which you have achieved two thirds of diddly squat.
Working at work may be unproductive, my friends, but working from home is simply a euphemism for sloth, apathy, staring out of the window and random surfing of the internet: and that is why it is so imperative that we get the transport system of this country moving.
What with all those trips to the kettle and the television, and keeping the central heating on, I am not even sure that staying at home is the eco-friendly option.
That is why we need a bigger and more generous vision for transport in this country than the measly effort announced by the Government this week.
Where is the dynamism? Where is the hope? Why can’t the Government go out to the capital markets and raise the cash for the kind of high-speed rail links that are now commonplace in other European countries?
When are we going to end the fantastically expensive ideological warfare between Gordon Brown and the present Mayor of London about how to repair the Tube? Judging by this week’s announcement, the Government seems to hope that, if it charges enough for rail travel, people will just give up and stay at home.
Labour must understand that this is going against human nature. Our species yearns for the office, and the job of government is to help it get there.