For those lucky enough to have worked from home in the past year, the daily commute probably seems like a lifetime ago. Long gone are the days of marching to the station, gym bag and packed lunch in hand, to elbow your way onto a packed train. Instead of waiting in the rain for a bus or sitting in traffic, we’re now shuffling to the kitchen table to start our working day.
As maligned as commuting is, however, research suggests a significant proportion of home-workers actually miss it. In January, the recruiter Randstad UK workers who had been working from home during the pandemic how they felt about commuting in retrospect.
Only one in six said that they now viewed commuting, business travel and physical meetings as “completely outdated.” Almost half said the pandemic had not changed their view of commuting or travelling to physical meetings – while more than a third reported missing them.
Commuting is known to be one of our least favourite activities. One survey of 5,500 commuters in six European cities found the journey to be more stressful than the actual job, with Londoners finding commuting more stressful than visiting the dentist. Overall, one in three people said they found commuting increasingly stressful, and over one in four said their daily journeys were becoming more unpredictable.
And it’s easy to see why we dislike travelling to work so much. The average commute for someone working in London is 79 minutes a day and for those outside the capital, the average commute is 59 minutes a day. Commuting costs an average of £146 ($200) a month – totalling £135,871 over a lifetime - and contributes to our stress and weight. One study of UK commuters found that even just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.
However, recent research has suggested that commuting, stress and expenses aside, may actually provide an important buffer between work and home.
Separating work and home
A new study, by researchers at the universities of Harvard, Michigan, Cambridge and North Carolina, explores the role of the commute in creating boundaries for workers. According to the research, the daily commute “serves as a liminal role transition between home and work roles, prompting employees to engage in boundary management strategies.”
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Three studies found that some employees engaged in a “specific boundary management strategy” and actively used their travel to work as a way to transition into their role at work.
“Although the commute to work is typically seen as an undesirable part of the workday, our theory and results point to the benefits of using it as an opportunity to transition into one’s work role,” the researchers wrote.
Finding ‘me’ time
There is no denying commuting can be stressful, but for some workers, it provides some important personal time. On a journey to work, workers can lose themselves in a book or podcast or listen to the radio and enjoy ‘me’ time without distraction.
Last year, researchers at the University of Stirling interviewed more than 80 people across the UK who were new to home-working. Although most said they enjoyed being able to stay in bed longer and spending less on travel, around half said they missed their daily commute.
When the study authors asked why, the respondents said their commute was the only time in the day in which they had time to themselves. Travelling to work also provided a buffer in which workers could mentally prepare for work, or wind down from the stresses of their working day before arriving home. However, other home-workers were able to create the same buffer with activities like exercise or sitting outside.
Not everyone wants to return to the office full-time. Instead, surveys suggest hybrid working is a popular choice among workers, so people have more freedom to work at home and designated workplaces.
“We were expecting almost everyone to say that they already looked back upon commuting and the endless slew of physical meetings - in the same way most people view the practice of dressing for dinner in the 19th century. But almost twice as many people miss business travel than think it looks outdated,” said Victoria Short, CEO of Randstad UK.
“The chance to decompress on the drive home, reading a book on the train or watching netflix while having a couple of train beers – or the chance to get away from the nightmare of home-schooling and have some free biscuits - is clearly valued more highly than the time people win back by working from home or the benefits or choosing when you work.”