March marks two years that most of us will have been working from home for all or a significant portion of the week, a shift in workspace and workplace that has led to many unexpected revelations. I remember the initial transition and the novelty of the 30-second commute from the kitchen to the home office. There was suddenly more time for sleeping in or a morning workout or even an extra cup of coffee. We could work a little bit longer and still gather with our friends and families at the same time each day, if not earlier.
But through the experience, I’ve realized that while working from home has conveniences, and setting aside the importance of time spent in the office, it’s the time I used to spend going to and from work that has even more value than I initially thought. I recently had a conversation with one of my colleagues and human resource leaders, Kristen Yount, on the topic, and between our shared feelings and a review of articles written on the topic, it turns out I’m not alone in missing the commute.
Certainly, commutes can be frustrating. I’ve sat in my share of traffic jams and know that public transportation doesn’t always offer a comfortable experience or operate as designed. As with so many things, though, I didn’t truly appreciate the opportunities my commute provided until I no longer had it.
First, there was the ritual. Humans like routines. They provide comfort and a sense of expectation. While working from home may have been exciting at first, I quickly realized it completely upended my routine. As Jerry Useem wrote in his Atlantic piece entitled “The Psychological Benefits of Commuting to Work,” without the commute, “There are no beginnings or endings. The hero’s journey never happens. The threshold goes uncrossed.”
There is undoubtedly a mental wellness component to the commute that I also may not have appreciated. The commute is an opportunity to plan for and prepare for the day. I can think through items on my to-do list and mentally rehearse important conversations or presentations. During my career, I have certainly had commutes that were so short that I didn’t have that time to organize my thoughts and I found the workday transition a bit more difficult because of it. In one of our recent conversations Kristen and I discussed our routines. She shared with me that she uses that preparation time to “listen, learn and look at the world around me. I look forward to these times Every. Single. Day,” she says. “My commute to work prepares my mind.”
Other colleagues have shared that they typically used their commute time for reflection, meditation, prayer, and gratitude. On the trip home, there is opportunity to reflect on the day and consider what remains to be done. On my return journey, I can breathe a mental sigh of relief and leave the day’s events behind. Without the physical departure and that transition period, we never fully detach. We never have an opportunity to reset and rejuvenate, which may be one reason why work-from-home has created such widespread burnout.
The commute also offers control and freedom. As Kristen says, commute time is precious “my time.” At home or in the office, we give our time to others — to employees, supervisors, customers, children, spouses, parents, etc. The commute liberates you from those obligations, and for a few minutes, you can spend your time how you want, whether with an audiobook, on the phone, or even in silence. Kristen’s favorite way to spend her journey home is by opening the sunroof no matter the temperature and singing out loud.
Finally, the commute lends a sense of solidarity. Kristin describes the feeling of actual joy when she pulls onto the highway and joins the parade of cars heading into work – a feeling that can’t be duplicated sitting alone at home on a Zoom call.
“As I enter the on-ramp, sun hitting my face, I merge with all the others likely to be on their way to work, too. In that moment, I feel joy. It’s an indescribable feeling!” she says.
I have no doubt that for some people, eliminating the commute has been a godsend. It has given them back valuable time. Maybe they even have better focus or productivity at home, or a schedule that better aligns with their personal needs. For me, for Kristen, and for many others around the world, though, the sometimes-maligned commute is a welcome event, even as I wait for a fender bender to be cleared.