Rethink your office commute

27 March, 2023

Try to optimise your commuting experience to make it less painful.

With COVID restrictions now a thing of the past, employees are dreading long commute times more than ever. This is no surprise. The pandemic created more flexible options, giving us a taste of life without the daily commute! Unfortunately, the traffic situation isn’t getting any better despite improvements in public transport. So, we must find ways to make the best of a less-than-optimal situation.

This week, my message focuses on the impact of commuting on productivity and wellbeing. How can we optimize this time and improve our travel experience? And what steps can leaders take to address this issue?

Over the last decade, “commute” has become a four-letter word for urban employees around the globe.

Major cities like Los Angeles, Bangkok, Jakarta, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru and New York are infamous for their choked roads and long, stressful travel times.

Indian employees spend an average of 7% of their day in commute, according to a report by MoveInSync. In the US, 25 million workers spend over 90 minutes a day commuting, while hundreds of thousands of “mega-commuters” are in transit over 3 hours a day! (The ideal commute, according to one survey, is 32 minutes a day – a far cry from the daily reality for most people.)

It’s no wonder so many people arrive at the office feeling frustrated, depleted and generally out of sorts – definitely not the ideal frame of mind to start your workday. Studies have found that employees with lengthy commutes are less productive, less satisfied, and less creative at work. They are also more likely to quit.

Commuting also has ramifications for your wellbeing. A study by the UK government found that lengthy commutes increase anxiety and reduce feelings of contentment and interest in daily activities. In a survey by Ford Motor Company, many respondents ranked commuting as more stressful than working, moving house or going to the dentist! A Swedish study, meanwhile, highlighted the effect on relationships, finding that when one partner commuted at least 45 minutes to work each day, the couple had a 40% greater chance of getting divorced.

Could you approach your office commute with a different mindset?

Rethinking the way we commute could help us address at least some of the negative effects. Making small changes can improve the commute experience and, by extension, your productivity, wellbeing, and relationships.

If you spend a significant portion of your day in commute, it’s worthwhile being more deliberate about how you utilise the time. As an article in the Harvard Business Review states:

As you sit in traffic, wait for a delayed bus, or stand in a crowded subway car, you may feel you have little control over your commute. But you can temper that frustration by focusing on what you can control: how you spend your time during the trip.

Here are six suggestions to help you reclaim your commute:

1. Create transition zones.

Commuting involves a physical transition between our place of work and our home. So, why not use this opportunity to transition mentally as well? Making this shift in mindset is a healthy practice, preventing work concerns from affecting your personal life – and vice versa.

During your morning commute, spend 10 minutes thinking about the day ahead. What is it you want to achieve today? Are there any crucial meetings or tough conversations on your agenda? If yes, how will you approach them? Are you expecting any obstacles? If yes, how can you best tackle them? If you’re lucky enough to be sitting comfortably, you can even employ this time to build your to-do list or schedule for the day, so you arrive at work feeling prepared. This a great way to increase productivity both during and after your commute.

On the way home, use 10 minutes to process and let go of the workday. Think about what went well, what could have gone better and what you could do differently tomorrow. Once that’s done, shift gears to “leisure mode”. Picture what you’re going to do when you get home, whether it’s spending time with loved ones, cooking a meal, or pursuing a hobby. Looking forward to these daily moments enriches them further!

2. Fill the gap.

A piece in the Harvard Business Review suggests the following exercise as a starting point to reclaim your commute:

First, identify the most prominent gap in your life. Do you need more relaxation? More exercise? Are there things you’ve been longing to learn? Are you feeling disconnected from others? What in your life do you feel gets short shrift? Once you’ve identified the gap, use your commute to close it.

For example, if the gap you identify is a lack of social connection, why not call friends and family members? Those driving their own cars can opt for hands-free phone calls in slow-moving traffic (if it is legally allowed in your city). Another interesting possibility: if you use public transport regularly, you might find yourself running into the same people multiple times a week. Perhaps a chance to strike up a new friendship? Carpooling is another good option, if you are lucky enough to find someone who lives and works in the same area.

If, on the other hand, you want to get more exercise, think of how you could incorporate that into your commute. Instead of taking your own vehicle, could you switch to using the metro/train, at least a few times a week? If there is a station within walking distance from your home and office, this is a good way to be more active. If you already travel via public transport, find ways to maximize movement, such as walking to the station and taking the stairs. Those who live in relatively bike-friendly cities, could even consider cycling to work!

3. Build a routine.

Research has repeatedly proven the value of establishing small rituals in your life. Your daily commute, a given on any working day, offers an excellent opportunity for this. Whether it’s reading the morning news or picking up a coffee on your way, even a basic routine offers key benefits like reduced stress and greater excitement about the day ahead.

4.Leverage technology.

Besides role transitions and small rituals, you could also use your commute to do things you enjoy or are passionate about. This is where technology has really changed the game. From playlists, podcasts and audiobooks, to learning apps for pretty much anything under the sun, today’s commuters have plenty to choose from. Why not take an hour this weekend to curate content that sparks your interest and suits your mode of travel?

Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, recommends allocating your morning commute to productivity-oriented pursuits and your evening commute to leisure activities – this will support the right mindset shift between your “work” and “home” roles.

5. Explore your options.

Those who drive their own car to work may wish to explore other modes of transport that provide more freedom to multitask. A hybrid model could work well here. You could switch to public transport or a ride-hailing app a few times a week, and drive on days when you expect to work late or have other plans after office hours.

6. Reduce the commute.

If you’ve already done whatever is within your power but still find commuting very stressful, then it may be time to consider whether you can cut the commute itself. Do you have the flexibility to work remotely a few days a week? Is moving closer to the office a possibility? This might seem drastic but given the psychological and professional cost of long travel times, it could prove worthwhile for some people. Those who are looking for a new job should also assign higher weightage to proximity – research shows that we tend to undervalue the downsides of commuting.

Why leaders should pay attention to commutes

In addition to reduced employee productivity, job satisfaction and retention, creativity is another casualty of lengthy commutes. A recent study conducted by Harvard Business School and Wharton School found that innovation dipped significantly with every 10 kilometres of added travel distance, especially among high-performing employees.

Post-COVID, it is critical for organisations to think more seriously about reducing the pain of commuting. The distance and time thus reduced can create significant benefits for employee and employer alike. Forward-thinking companies are tackling this problem in a variety of ways: creating satellite offices, providing incentives to move closer to work, and offering shuttle services for employees.

The comeback of office commutes has exacted a toll on people around the globe, depleting their energy, productivity, and wellbeing. However, it is possible to adjust the way you spend the time while commuting. While it’s unlikely to ever become one of your favourite things, the office commute certainly has the potential to be a less exacting experience.


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