Gary is happy.
Gary runs the coffee van at the station which is a stone’s throw from my house. For much of the past couple of years, he’s rocked up there at 6am and spent several hours twiddling his thumbs, and making the occasional coffee for me or my neighbours.
But now things are different. Gary is doing a roaring trade, with queues often ten deep. It’s the physical embodiment of a trend that is being reported up and down the country: Commuting is back.
As Covid restrictions have eased, more and more employers are encouraging staff to come back into the workplace – some full-time, many part-time. But, while I’m delighted that Gary is happy (he’s a lovely, cheerful fellow who makes excellent coffee) not everyone is as pleased with the return of the commute.
The reluctant returner
A survey conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies at the start of the pandemic revealed that “overwhelmingly, the most commonly cited benefit of home working was the elimination of the dreaded commute. People identified that by not travelling to work, they were saving money, reducing the stress and tiredness associated with commuting, and having a positive impact on the environment.” Cutting out commuting gave them more free time to spend with their families, cook, sleep or exercise. Anything but commuting, in fact.
According to BBC Worklife, the commute for the average Londoner is over 40 minutes each way. “That means we spend about as much time on the commute as we do socialising or practicing our hobbies.” For many, the commute is considerably longer. An article published by Stratodesk points out: “Combined, all of these hours equate to what is basically a part time job in addition to the work day. This is one of the reasons why employees are so reluctant to return to the office.”
Resign or return?
And people really are reluctant to return. In March, Robert Half released a survey that revealed 50% of US workers would rather resign than be forced back to the office full-time. Eric Anicich, assistant professor at University of Southern California, says that even going into the office part-time might be problematic for many workers: “With much of the Covid-related uncertainty now lifted, workers may begin to act on the preferences they formed over the past two years. All of those things are going to be hard to uproot – even going from five days remote to three days remote."
Not only that – there are also signs that commuting might actually be bad for your health. That article from Stratodesk points out: “Studies have found a direct correlation between average commute time and waist size. Increased commute times mean less time moving, standing or being active and more time being sedentary.” Of course, a sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest risks to obesity and a host of other health problems.
So, while the arguments may continue as to the benefits for businesses of getting workers back into the office, for the workers themselves, it seems that there are very few benefits to the commute.
Except that this may not entirely be the case.
One of the major complaints of working at home has been the lack of a clear delineation between work life and home life. The commute can be an excellent buffer at either end of the day to facilitate a clearer break between the two areas. Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School says: “The time period between leaving home and arriving at work is really a wonderful opportunity that people could use to transition between the two roles.”
It is actually a really efficient way to physically and psychologically transition. This is key, says The Atlantic, as “the ability to detach from a job is part of what makes a good worker. New research shows that it’s crucial to facilitating mental rejuvenation. Without it, burnout rises, effort increases, and productivity ultimately drops.”
Not if, but how…
But there are other potential benefits, too, from commuting. The study suggesting commuting results in weight gain only tells part of the story. A study of Taiwanese commuters found that people who used public transport were about 15% less likely to be overweight compared to those who travelled to work in the car. In other words, it’s not whether you commute, but how. The taking of public transport to work almost always involves a degree of walking that is absent from driving to work – but also from working at home.
Data from the English National Travel Survey found that roughly a third of public transport commuters met the government’s recommendations of 30-minutes exercise a day, through their commute alone. And exercise is a key component of both physical and mental health. A worker who shows up at the office having exercised will be both physically and mentally in better shape to carry out their work.
The benefits of BuddyBoost
This is where smart employers can make the most out of the return to the office – by engaging a wellbeing tool like BuddyBoost.
BuddyBoost has a growing range of programmes where participants commit to doing something that’s good for them for at least 26 days in a month. For example, in BuddyBoost Active, people commit to doing 26 minutes of physical activity each day. Participants rate their mood after doing their minutes, and the data from around 250,000 activities logged on the app shows that, on average, people get a 25% mood boost from the programme.
By implementing BuddyBoost Active, employers can encourage their staff to make the most of the commute, by using it as a way of getting their daily exercise. If you drive, think about ditching the car and taking public transport, or cycling. If you take the bus or the train, get off a stop earlier, or extend your walk from the station.
And through the BuddyBoost community feed, workers can keep track of one another’s progress and encourage each other to get in their 26 minutes of activity.
With a tangible target to achieve, and with clear benefits coming from their activity, suddenly the commute can be reframed from something negative to a more worthwhile experience.
Perception is everything
BBC Worklife suggests that such a reframing could have major benefits in the way workers perceive their commute. If we feel like we have autonomy or are contributing to a greater goal, then we can view an action differently than if we view an action as stressful or forced. “Recognising and reappraising the commute’s benefits, so that they no longer feel like ‘wasted’ hours, could therefore have a real effect on your overall experience so that it no longer casts such a shadow over your day.”
As such, we might even reach the stage where it isn’t just Gary who’s thankful for the return of the daily commute.