In the beginning, you probably didn’t miss the commutes.
Office workers who were told to work from home as lockdowns began had no reason to long for the frantic hustle to work every morning, the smell of fried egg sandwiches and armpits on a packed train, or the competition for a decent parking spot.
Simply rolling out of bed to your desk, or not even, should have been good for your health, too. Studies have linked commuting, particularly by car, to a host of ill effects, including higher blood sugar levels, higher blood pressure, backaches, and digestive problems. People who commute for longer durations are more prone to anxiety and depression, too.
But by now, more than six months into pandemic shutdowns, chances are that the average 4.3 hours per week you’ve saved with no commute have been swallowed by a new routine: You’ve been using that extra time to work.
That’s the case for 35% of US office workers, according to new data from a survey of more than 10,000 Americans by researchers at VoxEu.org, a Centre for Economic Policy Research website.
This trade-off is not in your interest. While commuting can be a pain, there are also real psychological benefits to the ritual that, for many, marks the beginning and end of the workday.
Better productivity. Three years ago, a team of researchers led by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino found that people who use their commuting time to think through their plans for the day—something the team called “prospection”—were more productive once they arrived at the office than those who did other mental tasks or looked for distractions.
Seeing the difference that planning ahead made on job satisfaction and stress levels in her study, Gino recommended prospection—the word never took hold—for both directions of your commute. At the end of the day, start thinking about what you want to have for dinner or what your plans are for the evening, she suggested.
More calories burned. Because commuting by public transit typically means walking between connections and destinations, it can help you expend more calories every weekday, without intentionally exercising. That goes double for people who walk or bike to work.
Extra social connection. When your commute involves chit-chat at the coffee shop or friendly banter with your bus driver, the short exchanges and returned smiles can make you feel a bit happier. If working from home has become a lonely affair, you might be missing these brief but buoying encounters with other humans.
Time for transition. Whatever you do with the time on your commute, the break affords you an opportunity to glide from one part of your day to another. You can move between roles, to become the slightly different you, establishing the right frame of mind for work or, later, for friends and family, and establishing a psychic barrier between your life at work and at home, as Quartz’s growth director Phoebe Gavin, who is also a life coach, said during a recent Quartz at Work from Home workshop.
A break from being “on.” Then again, the commute, especially in big cities, is also your chance to elude all roles and expectations, if you choose to. It’s an invitation to become just another traveler—not an employee, manager, or executive, and not a parent, roommate, or spouse—if only for a few minutes. In bigger cities, you can even cry on the subway and no one will bother you or know why.
A chance to daydream. “They are wrapt, in this short passage from work to home, in some narcotic dream, now that they are free from the desk, and have the fresh air on their cheek,” writer Virginia Woolf wrote of London’s train commuters for “Street Haunting, an essay published in 1927. “They put on those bright clothes which they must hang up and lock the key upon all the rest of the day, and are great cricketers, famous actresses, soldiers who have saved their country at the hour of need,” she continued. Indeed, having little to do while in transit frees the mind to meander and leave the mundane behind.
The “incubation effect.” And if you lose yourself in another world during your commute, you might just emerge on the other side with the solution to an issue you weren’t consciously trying to solve. For these creative breakthroughs, researchers credit the well-documented incubation effect, in which unconscious mechanisms unlock connections that were not obvious to your directed thoughts.
In much of the world, office-based workers will not have a traditional commute for some time, despite all the talk of reopening. In San Francisco, to address climate change, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has just approved a mandate that would force office-based companies to have 60% of employees become remote by 2050, an effort to build on the momentum of the current shift. In Japan, Honda is launching a work-from-home allowance to help its employees pay for the extra electricity and equipment required to stay productive without coming into the workplace. And thanks to a new spike in Covid cases, the UK has had to retreat from a government campaign to encourage office workers to go back to their desks.
Given the likelihood that you won’t have to commute for months, if ever, it’s time to rework your day’s pattern and re-insert the seams, and stop risking burnout by working through your “commute” time, if that’s been your habit. It’s time to build new traditions. As Harvard Business School’s Gino and her team wrote in their pre-Covid essay on commuting, “[r]ituals have been shown to produce all sorts of benefits—even for people who don’t believe in their value or effects: They lower our anxiety before we engage in high-stakes performance tasks, increase our enjoyment of the activity at hand, and even help us recover faster when we experience failure or loss.”
What should your new ritual look like?
Perhaps you’ll start taking walks, bicycle rides, or drives to nowhere in particular, like New York communications consultant Alex Daly, to clear your head. A commute by front stroke might be exceedingly rare under normal circumstances, but easier to pull off as a “commute.”
Your phone or laptop can offer some solutions. For instance, Microsoft is adding a virtual commute to its Teams teleconferencing product: Employees who use it could be invited to make a to-do list or rate their day, or to join a guided meditation from Headspace, one of many such app that have enjoyed newfound popularity during the pandemic. “Nobody thought they liked their commute, except it is one of those times when you switch off, and those transitions matter,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a recent online interview with Financial Review in Australia.
You could make it simple: Set up your workstation with the tower of books that props up your monitor every morning, then tear it all down again when you call it quits, or have a particular beverage that you reserve for the same time every day, Quartz’s Gavin also suggested.
“Before I close up shop, I spend about 15 minutes planning the next day,” she says of her own routine. “I look at my schedule and set the next day’s to-do list based on how much open work time I have. Then I identify the thing I want to work on first and set up my computer for that task, pulling up relevant files or notes.” Next, she shuts down all of the programs or browser tabs that aren’t part of the next day’s agenda and closes her computer, she explains. The custom, she adds, “has a very strong ‘today is done’ vibe.”
Some people light candles during the work day and blow them out when it’s time to clock out. You might consider instituting evening mood lighting at the same hour every day, a way to force yourself to step away from your email and spreadsheets, and make your transition out of work as easy as literally flipping a switch.