Why remote workers should reinvent the commuting ritual

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 3, 2020

Photo by Corey Agopian on Unsplash

The daily commute is now a distant memory for millions of workers. Before lockdowns and closed workplaces forced desk-workers to stay at home, Americans spent, on average, nearly half an hour commuting each way every day. For many people, that time has been filled instead with household chores, childcare or just more work, according to a survey of more than 10,000 Americans by researchers at VoxEu.org, an economics and policy website. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that for many workers in North America, Europe and the Middle East, the workday has become nearly 50 minutes longer (see chart).

Although sitting in traffic or squeezing onto a packed train is not everyone’s idea of a good time, commuting offered time for reading, getting a head-start on emails, listening to podcasts or simply staring out of the window. For those who could walk or cycle to work, commuting also served as a form of exercise. With the prospect of returning to the office still far over the horizon, companies and workers are finding ways to replace the commute. We asked professionals, executives, managers and researchers for tips on why-and how-to do it.

  • Recognise the value of the commute. Almost as soon as most of the world went into lockdown in mid-March, it became clear that workers were having trouble keeping their professional and personal lives from bleeding into each other, according to data from Slack, a workplace messaging app. “What’s missing without the commute is role transition,” says Jon Jachimowicz, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School—and co-author of a recent paper that found that the commute plays a part in “prompting employees to engage in boundary-management strategies” and that “employees who experience higher levels of work-family conflict are more likely to benefit from role-clarifying prospection”. In short, most people “like the idea of separation between work and home” that commuting provides, says Iain Gately, author of “Rush Hour: How 500 Million Commuters Survive the Daily Journey to Work”, a global history of commuting.
  • Make a mental journey to and from work instead. “Technology can help,” says Emma Williams, a vice-president at Microsoft. In 2017 Microsoft started to research the use of a bot to help workers prepare for the workday or wind down at its end. Called Switchbot, it engages the worker in a text chat to help prepare for the day ahead, or to stop thinking about work and draw a line under the day. Shamsi Iqbal, one of the researchers on the project, says they found that “six in ten people felt they were more productive and on average [and] productivity increased between 12% and 15%”. In September, Microsoft announced it would roll out a “virtual commute”, based on this research, on Teams, its widely used collaboration platform. Businesses will be able to tweak the tool to offer employees guided meditation, reflections on their day, or “help closing out outstanding tasks from Teams and Outlook”.
  • Try to stick to old habits. During Britain’s first lockdown in the spring, Jean McCracken, a children’s nurse in Northern Ireland, maintained the routine of phoning her sister or mother, as she used to do on her pre-pandemic drive to work. “I would call even if it was just walking down the stairs on my way to my desk at home or while switching on the laptop,” she says. “It just felt like the normal start to my day.” Different people use different strategies. Mr Jachimowicz makes a point of dressing for the workday at home and then symbolically taking off his tie and formal shirt at the end. The Belgian artist René Magritte is said to have walked around the block and back to his home before and after work each day.
  • Or use the time to create new ones. After India locked down, Rashi Sahai, a clinical psychologist at Max Hospital in Delhi, found herself with an extra three hours in her workday. She used it to cook and market tiramisu from home, giving it a logo, an Instagram page and a brand combining her name with that of the Italian dessert. Orders for tubs of “Ra_misu” have been flooding in, she says. “I’ve been able to do it because I’ve been staying home, there’s no commute, no physical going to work, no social life. I like my tiramisu time every day.”

Millions of others took to baking sourdough bread and banana bread.

  • Find ways to move around. Richard Patterson of Cambridge University analysed data from the English National Travel Survey to determine how much exercise the average commuter does as part of the daily journey. He found that physical activity as a part of public transport use in England amounted to roughly 20 minutes per day. He suggests that those no longer commuting could spend the time exercising instead.
  • Replace the commute…with a different commute. Workspaces outside central London have occupancy levels of 50–60%, compared with less than 30% in the city centre, and “[the] commute is likely a huge reason for this,” says Hannah Watkins of HubbleHQ, an online marketplace for office space. That suggests workers are adhering to the rule, coined by Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, that people throughout history have been unwilling to spend more than 30 minutes travelling to and from work (placing a limit on the size of cities). With offices closed and many people reluctant to take public transport, walking to a rented desk nearby for one or two days a week is a way to get out of the house again.

In 1973 Jack Nilles, a professor at the University of Southern California, coined the word “telecommuting” in a book entitled “The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff”. He and his co-authors proposed that companies should establish satellite offices, linked to headquarters with communications technology, that would reduce the distance workers would have to travel. “With a decrease in commuting time and distance, individuals would be able to spend more time with their families and friends and use healthier means of getting to work, such as bicycling and walking,” the authors suggested. The idea was not that commuting should be abolished, in short, but reimagined. The pandemic may now offer the chance to do just that.

Dig deeper: Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report looks at how the pandemic has impacted wellbeing at work globally. Sport England’s survey examines how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted activity levels.

Originally published at https://applied.economist.com