When Apple employees wrote a letter protesting their company’s return-to-office policy last month, among their chief concerns was the impact that a mandatory commute would have on their personal lives.
“Someone who spends 8 hours a day working for Apple from home, for example, but who has a one hour one-way commute to the office only gets 6 productive hours a day, without investing more of their private time,” workers wrote in an open letter to Apple’s executive team. “We estimate that the average time getting to work is about 20% of a work day. Is everyone being in the office all the time really worth it? If so, how about you pay us for that additional time investment?”
The Apple employees are far from alone in being loath to relinquish the time they’ve gotten back since the pandemic allowed many knowledge workers to cut out commutes. But as employers like Apple, Tesla, and Google push for more in-person office days—as the letter suggests—there’s a compromise that could satisfy both groups.
Instead of requiring employees to sacrifice part of their days to commutes in addition to spending eight or so hours in the office, why not allow them to count the commute as part of their work day instead?
True, this might shorten employees’ time in the office to just six or seven hours a day. But if companies find the idea of sacrificing those extra hours of work to be unacceptable, they should reflect on why they’re so comfortable asking employees to give up the same amount of time from their own days.
The global problem of grueling commutes
In countries like the US, China, and the UK, the average round-trip commute is nearly an hour—time that remote workers have become accustomed to redirecting toward more productive or enjoyable activities in the months since March 2020. The trade-offs are even worse for super-commuters; in the US, roughly 10% of Americans slog through commutes of an hour or more each way.
With that kind of time investment, it’s no wonder that commutes are such an obstacle to employees’ sense of well-being. “Economists and psychologists have long said that a long commute is the most immiserating condition of daily life,” University of Toronto management professor Richard Florida told the Wall Street Journal recently. “So it makes sense that this is what people want to avoid.” That’s particularly true for the many employees who’ve now had the chance to prove they can do their jobs just as well remotely.
The case for compensating workers for their commutes
Companies don’t typically regard commutes as working hours. But there are examples of policies that show there’s room for interpretation. The European Union passed a law in 2016 ruling that if companies require workers based out of their homes to drive around visiting customers or clients, they must pay workers for their commute time, and count it toward the 48 hours at which the EU caps the workweek.
And a lot of companies already recognize the financial toll of commuting, whether by reimbursing people directly for things like gas, train tickets, and parking fees (as is typically the case with employers in Belgium and the Netherlands) or by offering other commuter benefits. If companies understand that they have some responsibility to alleviate the costs of commutes for their employees, why not apply the same logic to time?
What employers don’t understand about commutes
To be sure, there are ways that counting commutes as part of the workday could backfire against employees. For example, if employers were legally required to recognize commutes as part of standard working hours, they might be less likely to hire people who lived farther away from the office.
But employers might also gain a greater appreciation of what they’re asking people to give up by going back to the office, both in terms of productivity and employees’ personal lives. During the pandemic, Americans directed the bulk of the time they saved on commutes back to doing more work for their jobs, according to a 2020 survey. If employers counted commutes as part of the workday, the impact of an hour’s drive to and from work on productivity might be more readily apparent, helping employers realize the extent to which mandatory office directives effectively shoot themselves in the foot.
The ludicrousness of asking employees to commute in from great distances would also become difficult to ignore under such a policy. If an employer considers an employee who lives 90 minutes away to be in commuting distance, then the company would have to be on board with a five-hour workday, or else simply let that employee work from home.
The pandemic era has underscored the need for companies to overhaul their conceptions of the role that work plays in employees’ lives. A lot of people no longer want their lives to revolve around their jobs. And so the question of who assumes responsibility for commutes isn’t just about the hassle of dealing with traffic congestion or subway delays. It’s about a fundamental tension of who ought to control the shape of employees’ days: Workers, or the companies that employ them?