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Why we might all learn to love commuting again

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Is it possible to fall in love with commuting again, now that we are starting to return to the office? If you are reading this on a crowded tube while trying to avoid a stranger’s armpits, the answer is probably ‘no’. But working from home (WFH) helped us discover the value of the commute.

We discovered that WFH means that you never leave work. That has been a disaster for productivity and for mental health. Research from Chicago University indicates that output has not declined since WFH started, but that productivity has collapsed. We are achieving as much, but taking longer to achieve it.

This is no surprise. It has been too easy to spend all day communicating and coordinating on Zoom, which means that we have to push actual work into the fringes of the day. This has taken its toll on mental health. McKinsey research shows what we all know: we are feeling more stressed and more burned out as a result of WFH.

Solving the boundaries problem

The WFH productivity and mental health challenges have the same root cause: loss of boundaries between work and home. In the past, when you left the office, you left work (more or less). Now, you never leave work.

In my research for Smart Work, which documents the global best practices of hybrid working, I found people were coming up with creative solutions to the boundaries problem. Some people, when WFH, recreated their daily commute. After breakfast in the morning, they would leave their house or apartment and go for a walk around the block. When they arrived back at their front door, it was no longer the entrance to their home: it was the entrance to their office. At the end of the day, they would repeat the exercise.

It turns out that the commute is a very useful boundary between work and home. On the way to work, you can mentally rehearse the day and sort out your priorities. On the way back, you can decompress and arrive back without wanting to unburden all your frustrations on your family or your cat.

One recent graduate was working from the end of her bed in a flat share. Each morning she laid out her office equipment and put out her ‘work’ rug on the bed. At the end of the day, she packed the work rug and all the paraphernalia of work away so that she could mentally go home. And she did the walk around the block in morning and evening to mentally separate work and home. Creating these boundaries made an intolerable situation more or less tolerable.

Boundaries also matter within the working day

While WFH, too many people schedule back-to-back Zoom calls. This is a quick way to burn out. Even the godfather of time and motion studies, F W Taylor, insisted that workers rested for five minutes every hour. He was not trying to be nice: it was part of his system for getting workers to go from moving six tonnes of pig iron per shift to 42 tonnes. If you want to be really productive, you need rest breaks: you need boundaries between meetings.

In the office, you rarely do back-to-back meetings even when they are scheduled that way. You normally have a few minutes between meetings when you go to the rest room, nobble someone in the corridor, grab a coffee (and nobble someone else), decompress from the last meeting and mentally prepare for the next meeting. That frictional time between meetings turns out to be very valuable and very productive.

Some employers now recognise the need to avoid back-to-back meetings and insist that all meetings are either 25 minutes long or 50 minutes long. If you cannot cover your agenda in 50 minutes, you are unlikely to cover it in 60 minutes. If you work from home, formalise the vital breaks that happen naturally in the office.

We may never learn to love commuting. But we have discovered its value through its absence. The commute creates boundaries between home and work; it gives us a break from work and lets us rest. You need boundaries and breaks to bookend each day, and you need boundaries and breaks within the day.

Rest is not for wimps, it is for performance. Make time your servant, not your master.

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