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How to Make the Long Commute Work

Employee self-control and subtle prompts from employers can turn the hours spent getting to and from the office into productive time.

Bottom Line: Employee self-control and subtle prompts from employers can turn the hours spent getting to and from the office into productive time.

Whether you’re crammed into a crowded subway car or inching along a freeway in rush-hour traffic, the daily commute can be a drag. Employees consistently cite the slog to and from work as among their least favorite aspect of their day. The average global commute is about 38 minutes one way, meaning the typical commuter spends roughly 300 hours a year shuttling between home and office. That’s the equivalent of more than 35 additional workdays. Worse, commutes aren’t getting any shorter: The distance employees have had to travel to their offices in the U.S. has increased steadily since 2000 (pdf).

Although lengthy morning commutes have been shown to have a range of negative effects on employees — including higher levels of stress, more separations among couples, and increased lateness and absenteeism rates — a new study suggests that trips to work don’t necessarily have to be damaging to workers’ morale and motivation. Commuters who have enough self-discipline to focus their thoughts on the tasks they need to complete can instead turn this “waste of time” into a positive period that helps them align their goals for the upcoming workday, the authors found.

Commutes pose an inherent psychological challenge and time management dilemma: If workers perceive the daily trek as an imposition to endure, they’ll probably try to distract themselves by reading, listening to music, or daydreaming about what the weekend might hold. On the other hand, employees who view commuting as a welcome chance to focus on their professional responsibilities — away from familial or social pressures — will be more likely to ruminate over how best to structure their upcoming workday. Put another way, self-control helps determine whether employees use their commute as a simple respite or a productive buffer time that eases the transition from home to office.

The authors completed several studies to arrive at their findings. First, they conducted a series of surveys at a global media firm to measure employees’ level of self-control, their level of job satisfaction, and the psychological impact of their daily commute. They measured the firm’s employee turnover rate and controlled for several variables, including each worker's age, gender, and company tenure.

It turned out that people with less self-control — those who assessed themselves as having less discipline, harboring more regret about their actions, and being susceptible to temptation — had a far more pronounced negative attitude regarding their daily commute, relative to colleagues who reported higher levels of self-control. In addition, those with less self-control were much more likely to quit their job because of the travel time.

A second study of full-time employees in a range of industries who answered open-ended questions about their workday backed up the initial findings. Workers who possessed the self-control to switch over from a personal to professional bearing during the commute reported less emotional exhaustion and more fulfillment in their jobs.

In a twist, a third study, of employees at a B2B firm, showed that self-control isn’t a predetermined personality trait. Rather, it is one that can be subtly nurtured so that workers come to view their commute in a different light. Participants in this phase were split into two groups. One group received text messages from managers encouraging them to listen to music or do whatever they normally did during commutes, but to also set aside a few minutes to plan their workday. The second control group was simply asked to note what they did during their commute each day.

Compared with the control group, employees who were prompted to use a few moments of their commute for goal-oriented projection significantly increased their job satisfaction and reduced their travel-related fatigue. And this intervention strategy worked on employees with widely varying levels of self-control. This finding suggests that focusing on work during the commute can become a learned skill, and not merely a reflection of a person’s underlying tendencies.

Focusing on work during the commute can become a learned skill, and not merely a reflection of a person’s underlying tendencies.

In other words, managers can actually turn the downtime into a productive period by encouraging employees to focus on the workday ahead. Supervisors should also be aware that employees with particularly low levels of self-control are at a higher risk of being worn out and demotivated by lengthy commutes. Managers should help these workers overcome their commute-induced lethargy by advising them to focus on their upcoming work goals or switching them to a telecommuting schedule.

Although the authors focused on morning commutes as a way to assess the impact of daily travel on workplace performance, they note that employees’ evening trips can provide similar benefits if commuters are able to switch off from work and redirect their focus on their home lives. After all, the benefits of a happy home life have been shown to spill over into the professional realm. Employees and managers alike would do well to embrace the upside of commuting.

Source:Commuting with a Plan: How Goal-Directed Prospection Can Offset the Strain of Commuting,” by Jon M. Jachimowicz (Columbia University), Julia J. Lee (University of Michigan),  Bradley R. Staats (University of North Carolina), Jochen I. Menges (WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management), and Francesca Gino (Harvard University), Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 16-077, Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 16-7, Jan. 2016

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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