How long do you drive to get to work every day? And how long do your employees drive? The answers to these questions are more important than you might think. In a fascinating post on Maritz's People Science site, behavioral science writer Brandon Routman looks at a couple of studies that provide fascinating insights into how people feel about commuting.

First, it will surprise no one to learn that "commuting to work" ranks among people's least favorite activities, as evidenced by this study led by economist Daniel Kahneman. What is surprising, though, is that a long commute can ruin people's enjoyment of both their jobs and their lives, as found in this study by Swiss economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey.

Most economists -- and most employers -- think of commuting as a tradeoff, particularly in an economy where unemployment is low and people presumably have a wide choice of available jobs. You agree to a long commute, which you hate, in order to do a job that you love, or that pays well, or both. Or the long commute allows you to live in a larger or better home, with more access to grass and trees, or one that is closer to your spouse or partner's job. Assuming (as economists do) that people make rational choices, the dreariness of the commute is balanced by something else that improves your well-being, so that people with long commutes should not be fundamentally unhappier than everyone else.

Except they are. The Swiss study, which drew on 19 years worth of detailed information from Germany, found that people with long commutes had "systematically lower subjective well-being" and less life satisfaction than their non-commuting counterparts. And this effect seems to last over many years. The evidence is clear: No matter how much you love your job or your home, a long commute will make you unhappy, and that unhappiness will never go away. You won't get used to it. I've experienced this phenomenon myself, both when I briefly had a job at a newspaper that was an hour-long drive from my home, and when my husband held a job in Eastern Massachusetts that was three hours away from our Western Massachusetts home. Mercifully, he had a share in an apartment near the job so he only had to make that drive twice a week. Still, he went from being a person who liked driving to one who hated it. Decades later he still hates it.

If a long commute makes people enjoy their whole lives a lot less, it's probably smart to do something about that. To begin with, if you yourself have a long commute to your workplace, you might consider making some changes, especially if you're not as happy as you'd like to be. But as an employer, it's especially important to take action against overlong commutes because if your best employees figure out that commuting is making them unhappy, they could go looking for different jobs closer to home. Here are some things you can do to make things better.

1. Start a carpooling program.

This is Routman's recommendation, and it's a good one. He notes that 95 percent of Americans who commute to work do so alone in their cars, and so there is a lot of room for improvement. As one study shows, people tend to enjoy their commute time more if they have someone to talk to. Not only that, in many cities, including my hometown of Seattle and my former hometown of New York, vehicles with more than one occupant can take advantage of special carpooling lanes that can cut long commute times significantly. 

2. Make work times more flexible.

A four-day work week is an increasingly popular idea that will cut down on commuting time for your employees, both because they'll be commuting four days instead of five and also because they will likely work longer hours on the days they are in the office, thus missing some of the rush hour traffic. The same goes for a five-day week in which employees can work at home or at a nearby co-working location one of those days. 

Allowing for more flexible schedules will also help because your employees are well aware of the worst times to drive to and from work and flexing their time will let them avoid those. It will help if you schedule most meetings around the middle of the day, which should boost productivity in any case.

3. Get comfortable with remote work.

Many bosses hate the idea of employees working remotely. And yet, in today's world of improving communications technology and worsening traffic, there are good arguments for letting employees work from elsewhere, at least some of the time. A very smart analyst I talked with recently told me she will never leave her current employer because she is allowed to work at home. Wouldn't you like that kind of loyalty from your best employees?

Published on: Feb 29, 2020
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