Global lockdowns and stay-in-place orders have all but eliminated the commute for many workers. As the world reopens, will businesses really insist that people pick it up again?
Before lockdown, how much time did your employees spend commuting each day? If you live in the USA, which has the 10th longest average commute time in the world at 25 minutes each way, in a typical year they were spending the equivalent of eight 24-hour days getting to and from work.
If their commute was 28 minutes, the average for the UK, they’d spend nine 24-hour days dedicated to travel for work. And if they live in South Korea – where workers have the world’s longest commute at 74 minutes one-way – they’d have spent the equivalent of 25 days and 19 hours travelling between home and the office per year.
Following the worldwide lockdown and with many commute-times cut to zero, it’s hard to imagine that the workforce will be keen to return to the previous arrangement. Companies will need to start thinking about what this means for their business operations and how they can best support their employees through remote working opportunities.
An emerging trend pre-pandemic
Before COVID-19 forced people to cut the commute altogether, many were already minimising it themselves. The BBC reports that the number of peak-hour commuter journeys was falling before the crisis, as people choose to work one or two days at home, or simply to come in after rush hour.
“A global survey by the infrastructure architects Weston Williamson & Partners of more than 2,000 commuters in 10 major cities showed a pre-coronavirus reduction in commuting of 2-5%, as 60% of managers and professionals were already working partly from home,” reported Roger Harrabin, the BBC’s environment analyst.
“Fewer people have been travelling at rush hour but although the numbers are just a few percent they are significant numbers [being seen in places around the world] from New York to Los Angeles, to Paris or Berlin. So, it’s quite a trend,” the firm’s co-founder Chris Williamson was quoted as saying in the article.
It’s part of a wider trend for flexible working practices. A 2018 survey by Deloitte showed that flexibility (in terms of working hours and location) was the third most important factor to young workers. Half of Millennials and 44% of Generation Z described it as ‘very important’ when choosing whether or not to work for an organisation.
An increased consideration of the environment and an awareness of the health risks around pollution were also shaping people’s attitudes. Research in 2018 revealed that commuters experience up to 30 per cent more pollution than those who work from home.
There were also theories about the positive impact of cutting the commute. “By working near or at home and only working three days a week, you can reduce your CO2 footprint by more than 2.2 tons annually,” reported Fast Company.
These environmental theories were put to the test when many cities shut down. The results were staggering. In March 2020, traffic levels in New York were estimated to be down 35% compared with the previous year, reported the BBC. And, according to researchers at Columbia University, emissions of carbon monoxide, mainly due to cars and trucks, had fallen by around 50%. They had also found that there was a 5-10% drop in CO2 over New York and a solid drop in methane, too.
And the human impact of no commuting was equally as positive. For the first time, many people were able to experience the perks of remote working – albeit in modified circumstances. Pre-pandemic, the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters. In fact, for people with a commute longer than an hour, feelings of happiness decrease with every successive minute of travel.
During the pandemic, Fast Company reported on data from fitness and sleep trackers that showed that the duration and quality of many people’s sleep has improved during the coronavirus crisis—”likely because we no longer need to commute”.
Looking to the future
So, will the trend continue post-pandemic? “Once effective work-from-home policies are established, they are likely to stick,” says Karen Harris, managing director of consultancy Bain’s Macro Trends Group in New York.
Some experts predict that people may want to stay closer to family after the pandemic. This could mean businesses need to accommodate remote working requests or think about offering office space closer to where people want to live – say, in the suburbs rather than cities.
The BBC reported that some major firms are already gearing up for a home/work revolution. “A senior partner of a leading professional services firm, who didn’t want to be named said they were helping their employees to set up for working at home – and they didn’t expect to revert to previous office-based patterns of work,” says Roger Harrabin.
Working remotely but not homeworking
Of course, working from home is not the only way to work remotely. While before COVID-19 it may have been seen as the holy grail of working environments by many, a few months later and the reality had become clear. There are downsides to working in the place one lives – not just for an individual’s productivity, but to an their health and wellbeing, too.
“Working from home and remote working aren’t the same,” says Jason Aten, tech columnist at Inc. “One is considered a benefit, while the other is simply a way of working. Working from home is a temporary situation, while remote working is an entirely different approach to getting things done.”
The solution could be for businesses to offer office space closer to where workers live. “Drop-in, flexible workspaces that are situated close to home are recognised as beneficial to worker health and happiness,” says Richard Morris, CEO of IWG UK. “These spaces are typically professionally designed to couple productive working areas with break-out zones and areas for sharing ideas and inspiration. Professionals using this space are able to remain motivated and productive whilst avoiding the expensive and draining commutes that continue to affect so many businesspeople.”