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Civil Service

Commuter hubs: bridging the gap between home and work

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Smarter working
Paul Cox
Paul Cox, MoJ

For many of us, the workplace is changing more rapidly than ever before. In previous roles I’ve sometimes needed to spend three days a week in London, rather than my base in Manchester, because I had to be physically where the project was taking place. Similar arrangements are doubtless still in place, but things are changing rapidly and, in my view, for the better.

With modern IT, we can work anywhere as long as this principle is embedded in our culture. For example, I know from personal experience that I was able to work effectively from home while recuperating after an accident. This benefited both me and my organisation and simply wouldn’t have been possible even 12 months ago.

In my current job, I’ve seen really good examples of remote working, whether enabling call-centre staff to work from home, or delivering complex programmes with a team that’s geographically dispersed. There’s still some way to go, but the change is real – and welcome.

From commuting to hub-ing

Few of us enjoy commuting, and academic studies have shown the net negative effect it has on our lives. This is only getting worse, as new staff have the problem of finding places to live that they can afford and that are still within reach of major cities (central London in particular).

What’s equally clear from staff feedback in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is that many still feel benefit from ‘going to work’, compared to working from home. Various factors contribute to this, including the need to create a clear distinction between home- and work-life, as well as the workplace offering facilities difficult to provide at home and the opportunity for closer interaction with colleagues. In some cases, of course, it’s impossible for staff to work from home.

To address this, we developed the commuter hub concept. This provides bookable desks for staff to work from, closer to where they live, offering the facilities staff expect in their main office. We’ve been gradually expanding this network over the last year. We now have over 200 desk settings in 16 locations across London and the South East, including a cross-government hub in Croydon piloted jointly with the Cabinet Office.

Banner promoting MoJ commuter hubs
Banner promoting MoJ commuter hubs

Positive feedback

At the start, it certainly wasn’t clear that the hubs would be a success, despite the increasingly popularity of similar private sector initiatives. While we’re still some way from embedding the use of hubs or providing work spaces in many of the locations where staff live, feedback from staff who use them – particularly those with families – is overwhelmingly positive. One said:

I am trying to use Commuter Hubs at least twice a week. It allows me to pick up my children from the bus stop after school. In addition, I do not spend 3 to 4 hours a day commuting and this is extra time I find I am in the office.

In some instances, members of staff have used a hub as part of the process of returning after illness, when they are able to work but not yet strong enough to commute into central London.

Two male civil servants working at desks in a commuter hub
Working in an MoJ commuter hub

Technology enablers such as the digital marketplace, and greater access to internet tools, have helped us deliver the hubs. We obtained a desk and room booking system from the former and set it up in just three weeks, working with the suppliers via the Trello project management app and telephone conferencing. Anyone in MoJ can now access this booking tool.

To put this in some context, 10 years ago, when I was looking into a standalone resource booking tool, it would have taken over 18 months to deploy to a small number of people and limited locations, costing vastly more.

The deployment of laptops as part of TW3 (The Way We Work) means we can create hubs in locations not served by our computer networks, such as the National Archives, simply by installing wi-fi and desk settings in available space. That said, because many hubs are in courts and tribunals, we can provide legacy PCs and telephony in some of the locations, too, which means staff can use them before their business units are ‘TW3-ed’.

Expanding the network

Above all, it's the reaction of hub users that's been most rewarding. We were delighted recently when the initiative was shortlisted in the innovation category of the Top Employers for Working Families Awards. Against stiff competition from Barclays and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we were announced joint winners along with global accounting firm Deloitte.

Cafcass, who are sponsored by MoJ, also won an award for their flexible working initiative.

Over the next 12 months, we hope to expand the hubs network, so that as many staff as possible can access them. While working from a hub is certainly not compulsory, they are a win-win for the MoJ and its staff: they mean we spend less time commuting and more with the family, and make better use of our regional properties, reducing demand for more expensive office space in central London – in fact, that’s a win-win-win-win!

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  1. Comment by Aimee posted on

    I have begun using a hub near to where I live. I'm finding it great be able to bike there in 15 minutes and be home not long after 5. However, I do feel there is some information missing in terms of permissions. I often find myself asking can I use the printer, can I store my food in the fridge - it's these questions, whilst relatively minor, would be good to get answered. I have tried to find this information but can't see it.

    Any help appreciated.

  2. Comment by Annette posted on

    This is all very interesting, and I can only assume that almost everyone who has posted here has been in their job or role for a long time as no one so far appears to have considered the likely impact of "hubs" or "working from home" on trainees. As a trainee you learn so much from sitting with your team, listening to your more experienced colleagues' conversations and phonecalls, and trainees pick up a lot of knowledge that way. That's not going to happen in a hub with people that work for a different employer, where you might only see your real team members once a week for a catch up meeting. We hot-desk, and while initially, when people came in late there were no desks left, over the years lots of people have drifted off into working from home informally, and this has already had a bigimpact on team cohesion and the extent to which people are able to rely on each other when things get tough.

  3. Comment by Duncan Hilton posted on

    I think this is the department moving forward and I love it. I work as a troubled families adviser and as such I am co-located within the council buildings and at my local office and i think that the model of the Hubs could be used within local councils reducing overall costs to both sides as well increasing links.

  4. Comment by LITTLE LONDONER posted on

    Don't know whether the above link will work, but the Watson v Civil Aviation Authority (2014) case, to which it refers, established in law that employers have an obligation to consider alternatives to enforced physical moves of permanent desk location for staff even if they are in fully mobile grades. In practice this will mean that where a job can be done remotely under TW3 principles, employers wil have to offer that option - or face the prospect of a tribunal case. Some government departments are bound to ignore this in the knowledge that they can simply appeal against any judgement given to an individual ; an expensive and time consuming option but one that is apparently considered a price worth paying to uphold traditional desk bound ways of working. This is the kind of assumption that has to be challenged in 2015.

  5. Comment by Emma Price posted on

    "academic studies have shown the net negative effect it has on our lives"

    So when courts are closed and court offices centralised will staff be given the option to work in hubs near their homes rather than having to commute miles on overcrowded and unreliable public transport?

  6. Comment by Henry posted on

    Sounds good, but I doubt I will get to benefit.
    I live in a rural area so if Hubs do get out as far as Devon then it's unlikely to save me any travel time. Which is a shame because I think half my town commutes to either Exeter or Plymouth regularly, but at least we might get our trainline.
    I also work on ESA enquiries so take inbound calls and deal with personal information and making payments, so doubt I could work from anywhere else.
    But for those who benefit it must be really great.

  7. Comment by David Childs posted on

    Having a broad ability to work from a variety of locations also has implication for resilience. Some parts of government operate from just one or two locations. If it should become impossible to access one such location (for whatever reason - a significant portion of central London lost its telephone/computer links for weeks earlier this summer, due to a fire), work could be severely disrupted. More flexible workplace options offer better resilience.

  8. Comment by John posted on

    To make this work efectively across Government, you need to move all systems towards a common platform. I cant log into (say) MOJ systems and expect to do Home Office work - even though we share the same ultimate employer.
    It's way overdue that the IT needs to talk between Departments, use the same language, or have a window into different systems eg using Citrix etc. It is only when you have commonality between |Departments that you will be able to maximise the savings from bulk buying, interoperability, better communication etc etc.

    • Replies to John>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Thanks John and while I agree with you in general, for hubs I'm not sure we need the hammer of a common platform to solve the nut of working together in the same building. If we focus efforts on improving the remote access experience of our current platforms and use generic wifi (and mobile phones for telephony) then we could work in most places. Effective printing remains an issue but with new ways of working comes a reduced reliance on printing everything out anyway.

  9. Comment by Jo S posted on

    Indeed, the HMRC building our future events are all based on the premise that where you work is more im,portant than what you do, or how well. I thought that the civil service was trying to get all departments travelling in the same direction.

  10. Comment by Gayl Warburton posted on

    would be great to see this expanded to be a cross department hub ie those from other goverment departments could access the hub to work from rather than travelling as i am sure there are numerous locations which cross departments - i know the IT is not there at the moment, but it would encourage cross departmental networking and the cost to each government department would be less in travel expenses and time. If i can be at my desk at 7.00am i can be more productive and it give me more time for my work life balance whatever that may be.

  11. Comment by Liz posted on

    I think this is a great idea. I hate my commute so any improvement would make a huge difference to my quality of life. I work very successfully from home one day a week but any more than this and I start to miss the interaction you get in an office. So a hub would be really great.

  12. Comment by Nick Trodd posted on

    I think it's worth asking HMRC's EXCOM the question though. Why not explore the possibilty of expanded home working alongside setting up regional centres? I find this article very interesting and think it important for HMRC to consider particularly at this time.

  13. Comment by Steph B posted on

    Where are these hubs? Croydon is mentioned, but that's only a 20-minute train ride from central London anyway. I assumed they'd be further afield.

    • Replies to Steph B>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Hi Steph,

      As far north as Peterborough, as far south as Brighton and Ashford at present.

  14. Comment by Marian posted on

    This is a massive step forward. SWhilst I am not a fan of home working - need to separate the two, the oprtion to work and communicate with others without the travel is great. Waht a saving in time and monet - never mind stress due to the number of hours we work when we do travel!
    In addition there are governemtn offices which are not fully occupied - in fact my local building (ONS Fareham) just off the M27 J9 has "mothballed part of the building - sharing accommodation across governemtn must a be a cost effective way to do business. Especially where the property is crown owned so there is no rent. Great stuff - so long as it does ot mean we never meet another human being face to face.

    • Replies to Marian>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Thanks Marian, interestingly I had a request for a hub just the other day from your area from someone who spends 5-6 hours a day commuting in to London.

  15. Comment by Matt F posted on

    I'm concerned that the take up just isn't sufficient to justify the ATOS support charges for desktops deployed in hubs. The Chelmsford Hub is normally empty when I visit Osprey House. Perhaps you could consider scaling back the number of PC's available in certain locations until demand catches up.

    • Replies to Matt F>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Hi Matt,
      Chelmsford is unusual in that the office space (and PCs) were already there so it's not a cost of the hub as such. Feedback from hubs where PCs are not provided is that they are needed so it's a case of striking a balance and we'll keep this under review as other users move in to the building over the next year. Don't forget of course that the cost of a desk in Petty France vastly outweighs the support charges of a PC.

  16. Comment by martin posted on

    it would be great if these hubs could be shared across govt departments, so we didn't end up creating multiple hubs in the same proximity, but who would run them and how would the costs be allocated?

    Would also be interesting to see if the carbon reduction from commuting to and from the place of work could be captured as well.

    • Replies to martin>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Hi Martin, sharing across government is something I'm personally keen to encourage. The concept would be relatively simple in each department would join the 'hub club' by offering their own space which will allow them to share the space others provide. Of course there may be perceived issues of confidentially and the need for the primary occupiers to know which departments were using the space but should be something that could be overcome. If a more traditional approach is preferred the booking tool does support cost codes which would support cross charging but, for me, the cost of cross charging would outweigh the benefit.

      We are also capturing SD data and plan to integrate that in to the reporting we do in the future.

  17. Comment by David Palmer posted on

    Well, hurrah for London. That's not the way they are building our future.

  18. Comment by Steve posted on

    Somebody tell Lin Homer!

  19. Comment by Stewart posted on

    The major problem government departments have is that they are still too London-centric. A smaller estate in central London would save money that could be spent by locating work outside of London, where more people would potentially be local and thus travel less, perhaps set up in larger public sector hubs for efficiencies. Your work on these commuter hubs proves that you don't need the volume of people to be in London to work so I wonder why Departments still have huge numbers of more expensive staff and more expensive buildings?

    • Replies to Stewart>

      Comment by LITTLE LONDONER posted on

      I beg to differ with the assertion that the civil service is too London-centric. There have been massive moves of civil service posts out of London in the last 30 years. Many of these have involved enforced moves of home for many personnel and their families, under open threat of summary dismissal for non-compliance. Opening regional hubs in the London area would have avoided the expense of these moves, and the loss of expertise that resulted from staff getting thesmesvles re-deployed or retiring in order to avoid moving their homes and famiiles distances of 100 miles or more. Like it or not, the civil service will continue to depend on the expertise of many people who have their homes in the London area, and need to keep them there. Allowing them to work, say three days a week from a regional hub and travelling two days a week to their out of London base would save cost and retain vital skills and experience.

  20. Comment by Brendan Cox posted on

    I use to work for the Insolvency Service. I was a flex-worker and worked from home two days, for family/children reasons, a week for 5 years traveling to B'Ham the other 3 days. When I was having building work done at home there was a period of 4 months when I could not work from home. Instead of traveling to B'Ham 5 days a week I found a "local office" and was able to book a desk there for the two days, take my laptop in connect to our network and worked from there. So convenient, similarly to "commuter HUB. - Great idea if such "satellite offices" could be available across government departments to share facilities.

  21. Comment by Kath posted on

    These hubs should be set up Civil Service-wide not just for MoJ as they tick a lot of important boxes including productivity and sustainability, work-life balance and employee wellbeing. They would also offer an alternative option to working from home which should reduce isolation as well as giving individuals a valuable insight into the work of other departments.

  22. Comment by Debra M posted on

    Most of us hot desk anyway so this would maybe give more room in the office if people could do this?
    Its a nice idea but I don't see it happening very soon.

  23. Comment by T Garvey posted on

    I have believed for some time that something along these lines is the way forward and will provide benefits for Staff and cost savings . Unfortunately, as Alex S says in his post above HMRC are looking backwards rather than forwards in there approach to the way staff work as outlined in their Building Our Future plans. Their visions is everybody working in centralised Regional Centres, with very little scope for flexible working. In effect everyone will have to commute to these Centres everyday irrespective of the fact that has this article shows, new technology will enable Civil Servants to work in any Government Building, many of which will be closer to where they live.

  24. Comment by Buster Friendly posted on

    It would be a half-decent idea if we were not forced to pay for the internet connection, power and heating used whilst working from home ourselves, subsidising the employer's business.

    • Replies to Buster Friendly>

      Comment by Paul Cox posted on

      Hi 'Buster', the post was principally about providing an option for staff to work closer to home rather than home working but I hear your comment often enough to give my personal view on the costs question.

      One of the links in the post was about the net cost of commuting, for me (in Manchester) this is a combination of cost (public transport, lunch, coffee etc) and risk (being knocked off my bike, picking up colds etc). The cost and risks of working from home include the additional fuel and utility costs and putting on weigh due to lack of exercise.

      The costs of working from home are marginal for me, I've found that the cost of maintaining a constant temperature isn't much different to heating and then allowing the home to cool as I come and go. With a smart thermostat I've seen my gas and electricity costs reduce from £100/month to £45 over the last 18 months in my modest mid terrace property despite now working a lot from home. Keeping on the most competitive tariff has helped too of course.

      If accessing for Internet for work has a marginal cost then I'd respectfully suggest you're on a poor contract.

      On the other hand I avoid the stresses and costs of commuting into Manchester by tram unless I need to be there for some reason. For me therefore I'm probably better off working from home than I would have been if I'd travelled in to the office. This might not be the case for everyone, in which case you can always continue to come to the office, but any discussion about compensation for working from home would need to be net of the benefits.

    • Replies to Buster Friendly>

      Comment by Sampson posted on

      You would pay for your internet anyway and connections are unmetered. The cost of heating and lighting a home is far less than the cost of travelling to work every day.

      Working from home reduces costs for our employers and employees. It is a win-win.

      • Replies to Sampson>

        Comment by posted on

        It is certainly not the case that home working is viable for all civil servants on a routine basis and this needs to be acknowledged more often (and upfront) in any discussion of the topic. Not everyone has the privilege of living in a modest mid terrace property with internet access or the freedom to change their heating systems. Sometimes people can't afford a monthly contract. Sometimes people don't have reliable access to a signal, and have landlords who will not 'encourage' a landline connection facilitating broadband. Of those who DO have access to the internet at home, many do so on a "metered" connection e.g. via a metered dongle. I am very disturbed that Paul Cox's response to a poster who suggests that they might have to pay for internet access is a dismissive "If accessing for Internet for work has a marginal cost then I'd respectfully suggest you're on a poor contract." This belies a very blinkered assumption of the lives of many civil servants and the facilities which may be available to them in their homes - we are not all on SCS salaries living in private housing; we cannot all already afford internet access at home, we do not all have the freedom to put in phone lines or modernise our heating systems (!). I think home working is a fantastic idea and I am very pleased the civil service facilitates it. However, it remains a perk only for those whose personal economic circumstances allows them to avail of it.

        • Replies to>

          Comment by Paul Cox posted on

          The post is primarily about working from commuter hubs. They provide a way of working closer to home without the need for home broadband and is specifically designed for people who cannot or chose not to work from home.

  25. Comment by Terri posted on

    This seems completely at odds with the BOF initiative of herding HMRC staff to regional centres and adding hours onto their daily commute.
    And if, as claimed, the civil service is embracing the value of IT in allowing us to work anywhere, why are so many job applications so prescriptive about the need to be in a specific office?

  26. Comment by Martin posted on

    This sounds a great idea, here in the North, (Chesterfield) many of us were transferred here when our offices closed so our daily journey to work increased overnight from a couple of miles to, in some cases quite a few. Travel time has also been affected from being able to walk home to being stuck on public transport for anything up to just over an hours journey.

    So being able to work nearer home once more would be an advantage and benefit. The work we are doing could easily be printed out anywhere in the organisation and worked on from where you are.
    Lets hope we see this happening in other areas of the country.

  27. Comment by susan e posted on

    I think HMRC should be reading this article. They seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

  28. Comment by Alex S posted on

    This goes against the HMRC future of closing smaller, regional offices and relocating all to massive 'regional centres'. I imagine a lot of us would love to be able to work closer to home. It isn't going to happen though.

    • Replies to Alex S>

      Comment by David posted on

      HMRC's stance on flexible working is in stark contrast to that of Cabinet Office and OGDs. There is no reason why flexible working is not suited to the work of many, if not the majority in the department, but culturally it appears that senior leaders are against these type of 'freedoms'. Although they might say it is because of the need for face to face leadership and team working to combat low engagement, it is more likely a control issue.

    • Replies to Alex S>

      Comment by Tom 1 posted on

      I agree Alex, it used to be quite acceptable for Customs & Excise staff to work from home if they were out visiting VAT traders, but since the merger with IR, the new "breed" of manager has discouraged that, which has been supported by the replacement of laptops with PCs in increasingly crowded offices. With the future of HMRC being Regional Offices, staff are now going to have to commute further, reducing their work/life balance.

  29. Comment by Kevin posted on

    This would be great in DWP/HSE

    • Replies to Kevin>

      Comment by Bob posted on

      As with everything Kevin, it may not actually be that great an idea for everyone in HSE, just on the basis that not everyone can / is currently able or allowed to work from home (and therefore potentially make use of hubs of this type). I would give this a cautious welcome and there are some very clear and evident benefits, but I would also like clarity with regards the potential implications for ALL of our staff. I am sure no one would want this to end up meaning staff being lost or deemed surplus to requirements because we have hubs at the expense of "dedicated" HSE offices.

      • Replies to Bob>

        Comment by Paul Cox posted on

        Individual organisations will obviously have their own needs and requirements. In our case the main office is not being given up, we're just providing alternative options for individuals which in turn reduces the demands on the main office. This is just part of the principles of smart working which says "Work takes place at the most effective locations and at the most effective times, respecting the needs of the task, the customer, the individual and the team".

    • Replies to Kevin>

      Comment by Mel posted on

      I would love to work from home. I have children at school & a husband who works away, to be able to work from home, even a couple of days a week would potentially allow me to increase my hours whilst fulfilling my role as a mother.
      Both parents & children miss out on so much not having parents at home due to work, my children would have a better stability having me at home more. I hope this practice gets shared out more amongst DWP.