Do you work in London, commute by Tube? If so, you have my sympathy. But having studied and worked in London for years, done my share of commuting and borne the brunt of a fair number of transport strikes, I confess, it’s just great being a home-based worker.
Working From Home on a strike day is an option for many. Laptops, broadband, mobile devices, personal hot-spots – all make this relatively easy. But it wasn’t always like that.
In my first job back in the early 1980s, I worked in a company based in Farringdon on the fringe of the City of London. For several months, London Transport (buses and tube trains) engaged in a series of all-out strikes, often running for 2 or 3 days at a time and scheduled at no more than a few days’ notice.
Not only was this in a time long before mobile communications and remote working, but my company needed a full complement of staff in the office, every day, for the work it undertook. On a strike day, that meant getting upwards of a thousand people into the office from every part of London and the Home Counties. With no buses and no tube trains, it was a logistical project of epic proportions.
I worked in what would today be called the HR department, and it fell to my immediate boss – and therefore to me – to handle it.
We knew where everyone lived of course, from their personnel records, held on the company’s mainframe computer (remember those?). But how to get them into London and home again?
For the most critical workers, we booked hotels. We got there fast and paid top rates, so we got rooms. But people – horror of horrors – had to bunk up together. One just didn’t do that in those days.
Then we set up contracts with several coach firms. We put a massive map on the wall and we worked out routes beginning in the suburbs or even further afield and winding their way into London picking up as many staff as possible at pre-arranged points. We worked out timings which often involved those in the farthest reaches being at their pick-up points at 5:00am. That might not sound too outrageous today, but those were the days when people rarely commuted more than an hour and never started work before 9:00am. We had coaches snailing into London from Essex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. And we communicated all this to every individual without the assistance of email – just phone calls, hand-delivered memos and lists pinned to notice-boards.
We organised car shares too, persuading people from different departments and vastly differing statuses to squeeze in together and actually talk to each other on these protracted journeys. Formality gave way to cheery resilience and here and there, a glimmer of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.
Of course, provision had to be made in London for all the extra cars. Without the WFH option, the only alternative for many was to co-opt the family car and join endless queues on the arterial roads. Such queues began around 5.00am and lasted all day; come to think of it, not unlike a normal workday in London in 2015. I remember temporary surfacing laid out by the Army in Hyde Park and St James’s Park and other places, which turned them into massive car parks on strike days, grass chewed and flattened in the interests of keeping London moving.
Come around 4:30pm – only the most modest of concessions for the day’s discomfort – all those coaches and cars would head for home, forming the kind of queues which were alien to commuters of 35 years ago, but all too familiar today.
This fun-and-games took place perhaps four or five times over the couple of years I worked at the firm. We got quite good at it – getting to coach firms and hotels before everyone else, the logistics, the communication, the massaging of executive egos, the polite rejection of all but the most compelling of excuses for non-attendance. As a young and naïve junior secretary, it was both a great way to get to know everyone and a superb lesson in project management.