- People don’t like commuting. Research shows that it’s not only bad for us, but the trade-off for a higher salary isn’t worth sacrificing happiness and wellbeing.
- How commuting will change post-pandemic is yet to be seen, but there is an opportunity to change it for the better.
- Coworking spaces should pay attention to changing commute patterns to market to a new customer base, and to identify opportunities for new locations.
New work from home and remote work options as a result of the global pandemic have altered more than just where we work. How we get to work has also completely changed.
How commuting will continue to change beyond the pandemic is yet to be seen, but there is an opportunity to change it for the better. These changing commute patterns should be on the radar of coworking space operators.
As workers scrambled to adjust to virtual meetings and create home office setups, the daily practice of traveling from work to home and back shifted to a short trip down the stairs or across the hall. In cities around the world, commute traffic disappeared during the quarantines and lockdowns this Spring. Freeways, normally clogged and congested, were empty. Subways and buses, too, experienced extreme drops in ridership as people began staying home.
Before COVID-19, long commutes on crowded highways or standing shoulder-to-shoulder on packed trains were part of a normal work life for many, with workers in the US commuting an average of over 26 minutes each way according to the US Census Bureau, the longest commute time since the bureau began tracking that data 40 years ago. In Europe, that time increases to an average of 38 minutes and is even higher in Asian countries like China.
The Commuting Paradox
Commuting is not good for us. Commuting is cited as one of the least enjoyable activities of the day to day, in a fascinating study characterizing daily life led by economist Daniel Kahneman. A common assumption is that a long commute is worth it for a better quality of life, especially when looking at expensive urban centers compared to more sprawling suburbs. In exchange for your commute, you get to keep the high paying job and get the bigger house with a backyard.
A number of recent studies, including one by Swiss economists looking at 19 years of data from Germany, have shown that the trade off doesn’t work.
As it turned out, people with long commutes reported lower well-being. They were not happier with their personal lives, and were also less satisfied with their jobs. This effect was also seen over multiple years, showing that people don’t get used to bad commutes — they just keep hurting our well-being. In another study out of the UK looking at the impact of commuting on happiness, researchers showed that an additional 20 minutes of commute time each day had the same negative impact as a 19% decrease in salary.
The Post-COVID Commute
Before the pandemic, strategies for improving bad commutes often involved encouraging employee carpooling and better access to public transit. But these strategies also assumed the need to get lots of people to the same buildings and corporate campuses, without regard to virus transmission as an issue. Now, as companies look to bring their employees back to offices, there are many questions about what impact there will be on the work commute in the short term. Concerns include low public transportation ridership, more workers driving solo (and increased traffic congestion as a result), and uncertainty around continued telework policies.
Rather than return to the previous normal of increasingly long commutes and decreasing well-being, the post-COVID opportunity is to rethink the daily commute, by reducing it or eliminating it completely. Obviously, working from home eliminates the commute completely. However, the majority of workers want to return to the office, at least part of the time.
To avoid commutes becoming worse than they were pre-pandemic, further impacting the well-being of workers, the focus must be on decreasing the commute and making it as safe and pleasant as possible.
Coworking and flexible workspaces, many of which have locations in smaller commercial districts and suburbs, can provide an alternative to both working from home and a long commute.
By focusing on workers within a short commute radius from their locations, coworking spaces can help make the return to the office a well-being win. Spaces located in walkable districts or with safe bicycle routes can take this one step further — workers that commute by walking or cycling report better work performance compared to car and public transit commuters.