The Myth of the Productive Commute

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When you search Getty Images for “commute,” you find a lot of pictures like this one: a well-dressed, totally put-together business person just ruling their commute. They’re on bikes, they’re on skateboards, they’re on scooters, or even if they’re on the subways, they are winning life.

This guy? Just living his best sneakers with suit life, pausing mid-commute to shoot off some emails while also on the phone while also smiling.

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.

This guy commuted to….the beach? To work on his laptop in a bowtie?

No one has ever been more thrilled to go figure out tax loopholes for the rich.

Anyone who’s actually commuted will tell you: these are fantasies. Or, at the very least, they were available to a vanishingly small portion of the office-working population. None of these bikes have kid seats on the back. None of these dudes are carrying large backpacks because it’s impossible to walk or bike or scoot in the clothes deemed “appropriate” for their workplaces. None of these photos are taken at night, or in the rain, or in the cold. And no one, absolutely no one, is dealing with overburdened transit or the absence of bike lanes or pedestrian-hostile traffic. In fact, no one’s in a car at all.

There is a perfect commute, and that’s a 12 minute walk on streets with sidewalks without massive amounts of traffic in decent weather. Maybe, depending on your personality, you’d be game for a 12 minute drive, but only on streets with no traffic — and to a location where you don’t then have to worry about parking.

This is essentially the scenario laid out by a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, which describes the pre-Covid commute of one Colorado content marketer:

SAMANTHA LEFAVE used to walk home from her office in downtown Denver every day. For those 20 minutes, the 31-year-old content marketer was unavailable on email. Often, she’d put on headphones and pull up music or a podcast to ensure her mind didn’t wander to thoughts of deadlines.

This ideal commute is possible because Samantha 1) can afford to live in close proximity to her employer’s office; 2) doesn’t have to go pick up kids at daycare; and 3) the route between Samantha’s job and home is presumably well-lit, shoveled for snow, and has robust sidewalks.

Unlike Samantha’s mind-clearing commute, the majority of transitions between home and work —  particularly for parents — involve multiple stops, backtracking, and amplifying stress. The average pre-pandemic commute in the United States was 27 minutes one-way — which means 54 minutes a day, or 4.5 hours a week.

For people who rely on public transit, it’s often unreliable and overstuffed and unpleasant. You can love the idea of the subway and still hate the reality of smashing your body into others because if you don’t, you’ll have to wait for the next train and your 40 minute ride into the city will expand into 60. And cars! I don’t think you can actually explain what a commute over 20-30 minutes in traffic does to someone. You have to experience it as the driver, on a regular, soul-crushing basis. The first year I was a nanny in Seattle, I worked for two families on the Eastside, near Microsoft. My commute was at least an hour in either direction, most of it stop-and-go. It made me unfamiliar to myself. It turned me into a person I loathed.

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.

This is the point in the conversation when someone like the author of that Wall Street Journal interjects to say that commutes serve as bumpers between the start and end of the day. They’re a chance to clear your head, stare into space, process what’s happened. This is possible, of course, if your commute is like Samantha’s: safe, short, point-to-point, does not rely on other transit systems, and takes place in space where you feel comfortable putting on head phones and not maintaining vigilance. I want to re-underline, however — like highlight and put stars next to it in the margins and put a big THIS next to it — just how rare that commute experience was and is.

Every day of a commute brings a new way for it to become a source of anxiety. Construction? Sure, why not add in a five-car pile-up. Rain? Maybe drivers in your area know how to deal with it. Maybe you brought your umbrella. Maybe your umbrella is no match for it. But most likely that rain has added at least another 30 minutes onto your commute.

Maybe the only time to go get groceries is at the end of your commute and the parking lot has turned into a MMA ring but with 4000 lb. piles of metal.

Maybe your car is unreliable and you’re always terrified it’s going to break down in the middle of the freeway.

Maybe you hate freeways but freeways are the only way. Maybe there’s always a creepy guy at your bus stop. Maybe your feet and your body ache every day from the positions you have to contort yourself into while commuting, or being in super close proximity to others sets off all sorts of warning bells in your head, or you have to lug a stroller and a child up two flights of stairs because the MTA has still not figured out elevators.

Maybe the commute never felt like rest and always felt like work, because a lot of us were also, increasingly, figuring out how to work during it — either by taking calls, furiously typing out emails on our phones, or listening to podcasts that relate to our work. Maybe the myth of the “useful” commute was always just a way to ignore the problems that make the commute so miserable for so many.

So instead of upholding that myth, we can take salvage the section of the supposition that is true: namely, that parcels of time free from work, particularly dedicated and routinized parcels of that time, are incredibly beneficial. They are beneficial to our work, but they are also just beneficial to us, as people — people whose value should not be defined uniquely by our work.

Depending on the rhythms of your work, these parcels — which we can call mental commutes — are most beneficial as a means of delineating the start and stop of the official workday, creating an on- and off-ramp into the times in which you do your most concentrated work. They also help create (but cannot function as the only form of) guardrails against the oozing, amorphous quality of remote work.

I take my mental commute every morning when I walk the dogs without my phone, but that requires dogs and a space to walk and mobility. One of my friends spends an hour doing some sort of movement — Peloton, running, home yoga — before helping getting her kids ready. Another sits down and free writes for 15 to 30 minutes before looking at any of her devices. I usually use exercise at the end of the day as my other mental commute, but I know those spaces are the hardest to cultivate — it’s very easy to launch straight from the last work meeting of the day into a pressing need in the home. Still, it’s also worthwhile to create a five minute pause of some sort. Force yourself to do a five minute meditation. Lay on the floor or the grass and stare at the ceiling. Play with your animals or play, with abandon, with your children. Read ten pages of a book, read a poem aloud, listen to music on your headphones and do nothing else the way you did when you were a teen.

There are so many ways to give your mind permission to exhale, but you have to give yourself that permission — and cultivate the time to do it, and treat it with the same sort of obligation as you once treated your commute — in order to make it routine. Otherwise, it will always be the first thing sucked into the gaping maw of work and domestic obligations.

These swaths of actual mental rest are great for the beginning and end of the workday, but my workday doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion. I’m increasingly “chunking” my workday: I’ll have a pile of concentrated work in the morning, then (at least in summer) go work in the garden for an hour or two, then come back and finish a chunk in the afternoon. You could easily switch gardening for “do some Yoga with Adriene,” “go to the grocery store,” “make an elaborate lunch,” “work on a puzzle” or do whatever hobby you are giving yourself space to cultivate because you are not commuting.

It doesn’t mean that you’re slacking off. It means that you’re giving your mind the space to work better. It’s like the old idea that “if you’re stuck at work, take a walk around the block,” only you actually fucking do it.

None of these ideas are actually groundbreaking. There’s a reason why jobs with actual labor protections have mandatory breaks, both short and long, and that reason is the labor movement. But people office jobs have long resisted unions (and the labor protections that accompany them). Ostensibly, they didn’t “need” them: their work wasn’t hazardous (until, with the introduction of various technologies in the 1980s, it was, but mostly for the women doing secretarial work) or their work was too elevated, their class status so seemingly secure, that to suggest or support a union would be understand themselves as laborers. (The one significant exception here: many, but not all, governmental office workers).

This is all bullshit, of course — and the fiction at its heart has begun to unravel. Knowledge workers increasingly understand themselves as part of the larger, global “precariat,” e.g., as easily disposable sources of labor. It doesn’t matter if they have more degrees, have fro-yo machines in the office, or can do their work from home. It’s so much easier to exploit people when you tell them that what they’re doing isn’t work: it’s a passion or, even more beguiling, a career.

But all workers need protections against the life-gobbling forces of work itself. Some workers have those protections in the form of union contracts, and mandated hourly pay, and overtime. Salaried office workers, by contrast, have historically relied on the fact that they can’t be in the physical space of their work at all times to preserve some distance from work— plus the persistence of norms like, I dunno, “lunch hours” that were actually an hour and did not involve eating a sad salad at your desk while also working.

But those norms were unspoken or unprotected — and, as such, easily compromised. The rise of cell phones and laptops and other technologies that have made work portable and slippery plus the feeling and/or experience of precariousness across various industries plus in-company portable catering and/or the prevalence of delivery apps have facilitated the continued incursion of work into those spaces of the day that were once the worker’s own, whether the lunch hour or the commute.

Over the past eighteen months, COVID and the accelerated shift to flexible and remote work has given workers the opportunity to reimagine those swaths of time as their own. But the character of knowledge work, coupled with explicit and implicit expectations that work should now effectively span all waking hours, have stifled that impulse.

See the results of a recent study on the effects of the shift to remote work on commute times, published in Harvard Business Review:

…we found that the most visible effect of the shift to WFH is a large decline in time spent commuting (41 minutes/day). But different types of workers used that time very differently: Independent employees (i.e., those without managerial responsibilities) reallocated much of it to personal activities, whereas managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings. For managers, the increase in work hours more than offset the loss in commuting time: Their work day increased on average by 56 minutes, and the time they spent replying to emails increased by 13 minutes. These changes were even larger for managers employed by large firms, who spent 22 minutes more per day in meetings, and 16 more minutes responding to emails.

Managers traded their commute time for more work and then some. And while “independent workers” (e.g., those who aren’t managing) haven’t, at least according to this survey, fully adopted those behaviors, it’s only a certain amount of time before those managerial expectations begin to trickle down onto employees, the same way that a manager’s hours in the physical office slowly create de facto expectations for those they managed.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 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.

This is an invitation, then, to consider the ways in which the unwritten norms of your industry have been continuously rewritten to benefit your employer — when it comes to commutes and lunch hours, sure, but also work security, in equity (see most recently: Genius), in health insurance coverage, in flexibility for parents or caregivers, or even the idea that you are actually employed by your company, not a sub-contractor.

Reclaiming your commute time — or your lunch hour — is a small form of a resistance: a way of putting a flag in a part of your day and declaring it yours. But it’s not enough, not until you work to cultivate a means for others with less power than you, whether in your own workplace or in your industry at large, to declare those spaces similarly. One flag, after all, is easy to bend and break and steal. 100 flags, 1000 flags, a whole workforce of flags? That’s worker solidarity.

You can pre-order Out of Office, which is filled with a lot of ideas in this vein but not this particular idea, here (or, even better, from your local bookstore).


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