The way we work has changed. Several aspects of work today differ significantly from just three years ago. The transition to more flexible work arrangements has altered expectations about when and where work takes place, making it more difficult for employees to return to the office full-time.
Research indicates that long commute travel times rank among employees’ primary reasons for return-to-work hesitancy. However, it is crucial to recognize that commuting can offer unique opportunities for relaxation, work-life balance, and productivity if approached with the right mindset. This article aims to explore the psychology of the commute, shed light on its potential benefits and how companies can balance employee preferences with the requirements of returning to the workplace.
People’s perspective on commuting
When people are asked about commuting to work, the most prevalent reaction is adverse. Many individuals consider commuting a hassle and an inefficient use of time. Longer commutes are associated with lower work satisfaction and an increased risk of mental health concerns, whereas shorter commutes have the reverse impact. However, something remarkable happened during the great remote work experiment of the twenty-first century. Commuting was no longer a part of people’s daily lives. With such strong sentiments against commuting, job satisfaction would be expected to increase during this period. However, despite no longer commuting, work-life balance did not improve, and mental health continued to deteriorate. Why is this the case? This is partly due to fewer in-person encounters and “Zoom fatigue.” However, research indicates that the misplacement of our commutes has also had a role.
A new perspective on commuting: Noticing the benefits
Although there are several reasons why commuting might be considered a cumbersome activity, there are also certain advantages that have emerged after working from home for so long. Looking at the beneficial elements of commuting, here are a few reasons why it is not as bad as it seems:
1. Work-life balance: a clear start and end to the workday
Commuting is a valuable adjustment period for individuals to transition between home and work. The act of physically leaving the workplace or embarking on the journey back home creates a distinct boundary between these two domains. This clear distinction plays a pivotal role in establishing a healthy work-life balance, as it prevents work-related stress from permeating into one’s personal life. The beauty of commuting lies in its ability to promote work detachment, allowing employees to cultivate a more harmonious work-life balance by providing a transitional phase that separates work from home.
2. Provides structure
Our commutes structure our everyday lives. Commuting emerged on a large scale during the Industrial Revolution when, for the first time, work locations were separated from places of residence. Since then, Canadians have embarked on their commutes to and from the workplace every weekday. From the moment individuals embark on their journey to work, commuting establishes a predictable routine that provides a framework for the day ahead. Consistency within a day gives us predictability, adding stability and certainty to an otherwise unstable and uncertain world. This is why humans have been partaking in structured rituals such as bedtime, dinnertime, and morning coffees for centuries.
3. Positive effects on health
Including a commute in your day can improve your mental health, productivity, and work satisfaction. Commuting offers a valuable space for individuals to recharge and mentally transition before entering or leaving the realms of work and home. By creating a buffer between these two domains, commuting provides a much-needed break that helps to minimize psychological strain. For those going to work, commuting allows individuals to prepare themselves, setting the stage for a productive and focused day ahead rather than jumping straight into the workday. In contrast, for those returning home, commuting serves as a time to debrief, decompress, and recover from the challenges and stressors of the workday. This intentional pause before and after work is vital in preserving mental health by allowing individuals time to process their emotions, thoughts, and experiences.
For employers: Drawbacks of commuting
Commuting, like any travel, has advantages and disadvantages depending on the method of transportation, distance, time spent, and context. As previously mentioned, long commutes are associated with many negative health impacts, ranging from decreased physical fitness and higher stress to increased pollution exposure.
Long commutes can limit people’s time in a day. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spent an average of 24 minutes travelling to work in 2016, with more than 850,000 workers dedicating over an hour to travel in each direction daily. Valuable time is being stripped away from workers, leaving them with less time to enjoy other meaningful activities such as exercising, pursuing personal hobbies, or spending time with family and loved ones. Moreover, longer commutes often come with financial costs, such as transportation expenses, fuel consumption, and parking costs, which can burden individuals and strain their budgets.
Employers must acknowledge and accept employees’ challenges and actively mitigate the drawbacks. Commuting to the office ranks high among the reasons why individuals are reluctant to return to the office. To improve the work experience, employers can create a balance between having employees commute into the office and working from home to enjoy the benefits of remote working.
Finding a balance is critical for businesses to ensure the well-being and productivity of their employees. Long commutes into a subpar office environment will seriously impact your recruitment and retention. When employees constantly must battle traffic, over-crowded public transportation, and lengthy distances to reach the office, it affects their productivity, work satisfaction, and quality of life, potentially prompting them to seek alternative, more flexible options.
While excessively long commutes can have negative implications, eliminating commuting entirely may also lead to decreased work-life balance and increased stress. Striking a balance might involve implementing a hybrid work model that combines remote work with occasional in-person collaboration or building workspaces that energize, support, and uplift employees so that the commute to the office becomes worth it. Employees may also integrate a short “commute” before working from home. This commute could be a few minutes of meditation or a short walk around the neighbourhood so that they can enjoy the benefits of physically and mentally detaching from work and home. By finding this equilibrium, businesses can support employees’ work-life balance, reduce stress levels, and ultimately enhance productivity and job satisfaction.
In conclusion, while commuting is often regarded as a burdensome and time-consuming activity, a deeper understanding of its psychology reveals that it may not be as bad as it seems. The rise of remote work has emphasized the role of commuting in maintaining work-life balance by providing a clear start and end to the workday, helping individuals disengage and avoid stress. Commuting also adds structure and consistency to our daily routines, offering stability and predictability in an otherwise uncertain world. Furthermore, it provides valuable time for individuals to recover, mentally switch gears, and prepare or debrief after work, which helps contribute to good mental health. While commuting offers benefits, excessively long commutes can negatively affect health and restrict limited time on a busy day.
Companies can significantly enhance the commuting experience by implementing a hybrid work model and creating well-designed workplaces that make the journey into the office worthwhile. By investing in the workspace and crafting an environment that is inviting, comfortable, and equipped with amenities that render the commute worthwhile, businesses foster a compelling incentive for their staff to eagerly embrace returning to the office. Building commute-worthy workplaces will foster a positive work environment that attracts and retains top talent while promoting productivity and job satisfaction.