04 October 2021

Culture Study: “The Myth of the Productive Commute”

People are always going to need to commute in some capacity to jobs that require presence — and we should continue working to ensure that housing is affordable in the places where people need to work, and that public transit is robust. That means getting on board for housing policy that increases density and taxes that pay for things even if you don’t need them, because other people who make our society run need them. If a company wants to put its business in a place where people who work there at all levels aren’t paid enough to live in close proximity… but it also doesn’t want to pay taxes to increase public transport funding to get people there quickly and efficiently, then it should pay for its employees’ commuting time (and the mileage on their cars and their parking).

With that said: the pandemic has underlined that most people working office jobs do not, in fact, need to be in their offices every day — and millions of people working those jobs were wasting unpaid hours of their day getting into those offices. If your presence is not necessary to do your job, daily commutes are a waste. Full stop.

Just like someone working a 40-hour week on an hourly wage shouldn’t have to take a second job to make ends meet, knowledge workers shouldn’t have to quietly cede ever-more of your time to work obligations, simply because they are salaried employees. Working from home is not so great of a privilege that you should give your employer one to two more hours of uncompensated work in return. You also shouldn’t have to rely on the benevolence or good management skills or your company to ensure that this doesn’t happen — that, again, is what a (good) union can help cement in a way that’s resistant to erosion.

Anne Helen Petersen

Throughout my career – before the pandemic forced companies into working from home – I never had a job with a commute shorter than 30 minutes one-way, and for much of that decade and a half it was significantly longer, 50 to 60 minutes depending on subway schedules. That amounts to some 9 hours each week spent going back and forth between the office and my home. I made some productive use of that time of course, reading or listening to podcasts, but nevertheless I would not have chosen to spend my time that way if I had a proper choice. There was always a lingering sense of resentment towards colleagues who lived 15 to 20 minutes away from the offices, and towards the company for not allowing us to work from home on occasion. So, I cannot agree more with the sentiment in this article that daily commutes are a waste.

Guy on a bus commute listening to music and having fun
This guy? He is having the most fun anyone has had on a commute since a 5th grader brought a boom box with En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” onto my elementary school bus.

The same applies to a smaller extent to lunch breaks, as some companies give employees hour-long lunch breaks – with the caveat that the free time is added to your work hours. And so, a 9-to-5 schedule suddenly becomes 8 AM to 7 PM (when you’re not doing overtime). Is there any wonder that so many people resist going back to the old routine? The only company with a somewhat fair policy was my first place of employment, where half of the lunch break was deducted from the working hours. If only this would apply to commute times as well…

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