Andrew Morison: Why driving innovation will get staff onboard

Oxford Bus Company’s Andrew Morison on why partnering with innovative start-ups may hold the key to keeping the company’s bus drivers informed and feeling valued.

Last year, one of the top 10 annoying pieces of management jargon was “If you don’t like it, get off the bus”, implying someone should leave the company if they’re not happy.

This piqued my interest as while what we offer our staff at Oxford Bus is hugely important, like every company we’re not immune from losing employees. And it’s something we’re keen to address.

We believe there’s room for innovation, which is why we’re delighted to be among the sponsors of the Billion Journey Project, with a view to delivering greater employee satisfaction.

The Billion Journey Project is the UK’s largest privately funded multi-modal transport innovation programme and is now in its third year.

It was created to identify the startups – from anywhere in the world – with solutions to Go-Ahead Group’s biggest innovation challenges.

As a group, we’re incredibly proud that a number of the startups chosen to be part of Go-Ahead’s first two cohorts were awarded contracts.

For an accelerator programme this helps to demonstrate what a fantastic opportunity being selected for it is for companies seeking to scale alongside corporate partners.

Go-Ahead BJP blog.jpg

Facing our innovation challenges

Back to the issue at hand, we want to make sure our drivers feel as valued as they should. And while we’re far from fresh out of ideas, the opportunity of broadening our approach to this is exciting.

Bus drivers don’t always get the appreciation they deserve. As passengers, when we step on to a bus, we put our trust in people we’ll very rarely get to know on a more meaningful level than buying a ticket or showing a pass. Yet, as responsibility goes, it’s huge.

Navigating city and country routes to a timetable with all the potential obstacles you might meet along the way cannot be underestimated.

We recognise that it’s an occupation that carries a good degree of stress.

Bus drivers represent 80% of our workforce. It’s expensive to recruit, train and ensure they are compliant with PCV (passenger-carrying vehicle) regulations. So it’s a source of great disappointment that staff turnover is between 10-20% depending on the area.

We know that Brexit has had some impact here as some of our Eastern European employees decided to leave, but want to do more to attract, engage, and retain great bus drivers. For many, driving a bus won’t feel like the ‘sexiest’ job, but its place in the lives of millions of people across the UK is beyond doubt.

So how can start-ups help us?

We believe there are ways to track, analyse and test existing Oxford Bus data to better understand staff and draw insights we can act on.

Gaining a better understanding of drivers’ needs and preferences will help us deliver the best solution. We also want to find ways to make the job of driving safer and easier.

As background, it’s important to recognise that drivers are effectively remote workers. Aside from regulated breaks, they spend almost all of their working day in their driving seat away from their colleagues.

We understand it can be hard to keep abreast of what’s going on with the company, as well as keeping in touch with line managers. We want them to get answers to questions quickly.

We do run drop-in sessions where managers sit in a break room to answer questions and have open and frank discussions, but really we want the entire workforce to engage.

Alongside remuneration and benefits such as a good pension, the Cycle to Work scheme and loans to buy home technology, our drivers value and deserve recognition for the great job they’re doing.

That’s why we have a monthly prize-giving and an annual awards ceremony. We’re keen to explore other options that go beyond tech solutions yet make our drivers know how much we value them.

The exciting thing about working with startups that have an established product is that they’ll be able to demonstrate hard and fast improvements to employee churn.

Working with Oxford Bus – and in future the wider Go-Ahead Group – represents a fantastic opportunity to become a long-term partner. Our management team believe in getting things done and embracing innovation, one of our five company values.

In recent years we’ve spent millions upgrading ticket machines, how we communicate passenger information, and added contactless payments (which now represent around half of all on-bus payments). It’s time we looked inwards to our staff. The question for startups is: Are you on the bus?