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First published on Forbes, 12/08/22
“The true enemy for many is the daily grind of commuting.” That’s according to Mark Dixon, CEO of flexible office provider IWG. And he has a point. People were only too delighted to give up their commute during the pandemic; for many, the resulting time and cost savings were the biggest perk of working from home. And now that offices are going back, many workers are dreading the thought of having to do it all over again, not least due to fears over the risk of infection.
However, as someone who regularly runs and swims to the office (yes, in London!), I can wholeheartedly say that the commute doesn’t have to be that way. There are cheaper, more sustainable ways to get to the office and, dare I say it, commuting can be good for you.
New Commuting Patterns
Changes in how we work should mean that commuting isn’t as painful as it once was. Less days in the office mean less commuting and less people using transport systems, which could actually make taking the train or the bus more bearable.
For those whose only option is to drive to work, the rise in hybrid working is also good news. Research by Wejo for USA Today, shows that the “rush hour” is not quite so rushed these days. Starting times are now flexible, often later, and more spread out.
Employers can help to ensure that these new commuting patterns stick. For example, at Tiger Recruitment we’re giving people flexibility over their start and finish times so that they can travel in quieter (and less expensive) periods. Thanks to technology, people will soon be able to plan their journeys with even greater precision. Take Google’s transit crowdedness predictions innovation, for example, which is currently being trialed in New York and Sydney. Commuters can see how busy their train or bus will be and avoid peak times, meaning that standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an overcrowded carriage could become a thing of the past.
Another growing trend that could eliminate the once-dreaded commute is the so-called 15-minute city, the brainchild of Professor Carlos Moreno. This is the idea that everything you need in terms of work, retail and leisure is within 15 minutes by foot or bike. The concept, which gained momentum during the pandemic when people tended to stay local, is designed to create a greener, cleaner, more pleasant urban environment. Paris has embraced it; Milan is piloting it and other world cities are introducing their own variations, with leading examples including Portland’s Complete Neighborhoods and Bogotá’s Barrios Vitales.
With the 15-minute city, rather than everyone having to travel to a central office location, people would work closer to home, combining remote working with working from a local flexible workspace.
The beauty of living closer to the office, or working closer to home, is that you can travel there under your own steam. My own day starts with a run through London’s Hyde Park followed by a swim in the Serpentine. For me, the commute is my daily exercise, which leaves me energized and ready to face the challenges of the day ahead.
The desire to avoid public transport during the pandemic has also driven a number of my team to rethink their commute and, like me, where they can, have made walking, running or cycling to the office part of their routine.
Active commuting is great for physical wellbeing, with medical research showing that it could help people live longer and reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Employers can help their employees make healthier choices. That might mean offering bike or e-bike subsidies, such as Amazon is doing, and providing the right facilities so that people can easily store their bikes and shower and change before work.
The other beneficiary of more active commuting is the environment. Encouraging people to take up greener modes of transport can help businesses reduce their carbon footprint and maintain the sustainability boost we saw during Covid-19 when people drove less and stayed at home more.
Many people are still wedded to their cars and if anything, the pandemic has strengthened their attachment as they look to avoid crowds and the risk of infection. But Oxford academics have found that by swapping their car for a bike or e-bike just one day a week, people can reduce their carbon footprint by about 0.5 tonnes (0.55 tons) over a year, representing a substantial share of average per capita C02.
Changing behavior also requires city-level transformation. There needs to be the right infrastructure in place – such as cycle lanes – with incentives to reward and encourage healthy choices. This year’s European green capital, Lahti in Finland provides an interesting example of how it can be done. As part of a broader urban mobility project, citizens use an app to calculate their carbon footprint and earn points – virtual Euros – for using greener transport options, which can be exchanged for discounts on products and services.
Love it or hate it, the commute is an important part of working life, which helps people mentally prepare for the day ahead and unwind when it’s over. It’s for that very reason that when all of us were working from home, a group of UK academics recommended a ‘faux commute’ as a useful way to separate work and home life.
This is a healthy habit that businesses should continue to foster in their remote workers. A lap of the park or a walk round the block can help people get into the right professional mindset. It can also guard against burnout; rather than gaining an extra hour by not commuting, employees often devote that time to their work and don’t mentally switch off as much as they would if they were traveling to the office.
So, as offices go back in cities around the world from New York to London, let’s resist the temptation to return to our old ways and a commute that fills many of us with trepidation. Now is the time to think differently, to encourage your teams to consider the commute not as something to endure but as an opportunity to exercise, mentally prepare for the working day and have a positive environmental impact. Anyone care to join me for a swim?