The sorrows of staff parking

Bad management today: When the car park kills culture.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2020

You may not have given much thought to the office car park recently. Indeed, when you do think of it, it may be as just a rectangular patch of tarmac that ruins your view. But if you’re not careful, it can quickly become a battleground for disgruntled employees.

With workers urged to avoid using public transport under social distancing guidelines, it’s likely that the demand for on-site parking will be greater than usual in the coming months.

Companies do not have to provide parking for staff by law, but doing so can have significant benefits for both wellbeing and retention. However, if policies are deemed unfair the consequences for company culture can be severe, as Management Today recently heard.

The executive team at a short-term credit provider were faced with a first-world problem. This was pre-COVID-19 and the firm was growing fast. Soon the numbers of staff in its call centre and office far exceeded the number of parking spaces available.

The HR team came up with what they thought was a novel and fair solution. Employees would now be ranked in order of the distance that they needed to travel into work. Those that lived farthest away would be given priority. Managers were automatically given a parking space, regardless of the distance they lived from the office.

This led on multiple occasions to employees who had driven into the office for two or three years having their permits revoked as some of the newer starters lived further away.

Senior management suggested that the affected staff ask owners of some of the surrounding houses if they could rent a parking space (which the company would not reimburse) or they could get the bus, which in some cases would double or even triple their commuting time.

The inevitable frustration led to growing resentment and a lack of engagement among the affected staffers, causing some to leave.

“Parking can be as emotive as pensions and pay,” says Ian Goodwin, founder of The Parking Consultancy. “Restricting someone’s personal mobility by taking away their permit can be like chopping their arm off.”

Director-only parking can be particularly problematic, a point not lost on Dreams’ Mike Logue when he joined the bed retailer as CEO in 2013, with the brief of turning around the struggling firm.

“Staff were used to not seeing the senior leadership team and as a result a real disconnect had emerged. As a way of quickly trying to re-establish a connection I removed directors-only parking,” Logue told Management Today in a 2018 interview.

"Why should staff who get in at 7am park down the street because spaces have to remain free for the director who turns up at midday? That is just unacceptable and paints totally the wrong message.”

Goodwin agrees that prioritising parking on the basis on seniority, length of service or even distance is “probably not the best approach”. A fairer solution, he says, is a points-based system that factors in individual caring responsibilities, shift patterns, heath conditions and access to public transport.

“It’s a good public relations exercise to show that you’re taking account of everyone’s individual circumstances,” says Goodwin. Firms may even seek to create their own solutions if the office is in a particularly inaccessible location, for example running a shuttle bus service or developing sustainable travel plans promoting bikes and car-sharing (though the latter is discouraged under the government’s current social distancing guidelines).

The office car park is clearly more important than we thought it was, illustrating how our responses to a seemingly mundane problem can send signals about and indeed shape company culture. And don’t even get us started on bike racks.

Image credit: Matthew Horwood / Contributor via Getty Images.

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