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There's an old saying in business that "time is a commodity."

Tell that to the growing number of workers who believe they're wasting many hours each week traveling to and from work.

"For years, I had one of those awful, long commutes each day because the employer wasn't open to flexible schedules or remote work," says Suzanne Wolko, a business travel expert and founder of PhilaTravelGirl.com. "It was a great job with a global firm, but I was driving two-and-a-half hours per day."

Despite leaving early in the morning, Wolko found that she was often late for work. "With accidents and other delays, I'd wind up pulling over to take a conference call while stopped in traffic," she says.

Wolko is hardly alone in her frustration over the commuter experience. As such problems have grown, some companies have resorted to checking potential hires' commute scenarios before offering jobs. "I see employers advertising jobs within commuting distance or for local candidates only," Wolko says. "Basically, they're limiting opportunities for candidates who are outside an acceptable mile radius."

Wasted Time

The effects of a crushing commute on employees can lead to lost productivity for employers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commute to work and home again stands at more than 52 minutes.

"Overall, workers take more than 50 billion solo commutes each year, averaging 15 miles each way," says Rob Sadow, a San Francisco-based board member of the Association for Commuter Transportation and chief executive officer at Scoop, a commuter carpooling company.Commuting in 2019: Are You Stuck in Neutral? Take the poll.

"Additionally, the average commuting time for U.S. workers is up 20 percent from the 1980s."

With the typical commute now more than 26 minutes each way in the U.S., "when you do the math, that adds up to more than four hours per week," says Denise Leaser, president at GreatBizTools, which provides artificial intelligence-based human resources platforms to such companies as Starbucks and IBM. "That's a full 10 percent of a 40-hour workweek, which could be better spent on something more productive."

Sadow notes that research from ADP shows that an employee's commute is the third most-common reason why workers leave their jobs, ranked after low pay and long hours. 

"Not only are employees put off by long commutes, they would even pay to shorten their travel time," he adds. "According to LinkedIn, 85 percent of U.S. professionals would take a pay cut if it meant reducing their commute time. Furthermore, researchers at the University of West England found that an additional 20 minutes of commuting each workday is equivalent to a 19 percent annual pay cut when it comes to measuring how satisfied people say they are with their jobs.

The commuting issue is so vexing for the business sector at large that Sadow believes it deserves the utmost public-private priority. "The commute should become the new health care as organizations look to differentiate themselves in an ever-evolving, competitive landscape," he says.

A Rough Ride

According to a recent study by global staffing firm Robert Half, 23 percent of U.S. employees have quit their jobs over a stressful commute.

The problem is particularly acute in heavily populated areas. The Half study report notes that urban centers such as Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City are at the top of the list of cities where workers are more likely to quit a job due to a "bad commute."

U.S. Metro Areas with the Longest Average Commuting Times (in Minutes)

"Commutes can have a major impact on morale and, ultimately, an employee's decision to stay with or leave a job," says Paul McDonald, a Los Angeles-based senior executive director for Robert Half. "In today's candidate-driven market, skilled workers can have multiple offers on the table. Professionals may not need to put up with a lengthy or stressful trip to the office if there are better options available."

Companies Step In

A growing number of employers are taking action against problematic commutes and the lost productivity that comes with a long ride to work.

"We're an almost entirely telecommuting company," says Dary Merckens, chief technology officer at Gunner Technology, a Las Vegas-based software development company. "We have offices all over the country but generally use those only for onsite client meetings and all-hands internal company meetings."

The company gives employees the freedom to work from home, or wherever they like, he adds, so they can choose their optimal working environment.

The fact that 17 percent of Americans spend nearly 16 days per year commuting to and from work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, represents "lost time" Merckens says.

"Nobody should spend 4 percent of their year commuting," he says. "It's ludicrous. It's the remnant of a bygone era where commuting made sense. But between population expansion, suburban migration and the limits of highway infrastructure, commuting has become a modern-day nightmare."

Geography is a big factor in commute management, especially for businesses located in big cities.

Take Hollingsworth, a national e-commerce and logistics company based in Dearborn, Mich., that offers public transit tax-free accounts to its 500-plus employees. "About 82 percent of our employees take advantage of this benefit," says Alexandra Tran, a Seattle-based digital marketing strategist at Hollingsworth.

Tran notes that Nordstrom, her previous employer, offered the same perk to its corporate employees. "Other companies, such as Amazon, also offer free public transportation," she adds. "In Seattle, our public transit system and population are growing, so many companies are following this trend of offering public transportation as a perk to their employees, as well as a way to prevent carbon emissions."

Telework Takes Off

Some employers are finding that telecommuting is another effective way of removing commuting problems from the workplace equation.

According to a 2018 study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, 50 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job "that's compatible with at least partial telework, and approximately 20-25 percent of the workforce teleworks with some frequency."

Additionally, 80 percent to 90 percent of U.S. workers surveyed indicated that telecommuting—at least part-time—is preferable. "Two to three days a week seems to be the sweet spot that allows for a balance of concentrative work (at home) and collaborative work (at the office)," the study found.

Telework Can Work

Career professionals who have embraced the telecommuting lifestyle are bullish on the trend.

"Having worked both remotely and in office environments, I can confidently say that working from home—or a cafe near your home—is probably the single biggest tool to combat the negatives of commuting," says Rudeth Shaughnessy, a former human resources consultant at Deloitte and current Amherst, Mass.-based volunteer director at Copy My Resume, a free resume resource for job hunters.

Allowing workers to work from home both eliminates the need for commuting on those days and also can result in a better work/life balance, particularly for new and young parents, Shaughnessy says.

"Depending on a company's size, its resources, and how willing it is to adopt remote-conducive productivity tools—such as Asana, Wrike or Trello for project management, or Slack for communications—an organization could have employees work remotely anywhere from once a week to two-to-three days a week." 

Shaughnessy advises companies just starting out on the telecommuting path to start slowly, perhaps one day a week, to see how it goes. 

"Human resources departments can then increase or decrease the number of remote working days until they dial in a sweet spot of productivity and decreased commuting issues," Shaughnessy says.


Creative Solutions to Commuting Challenges

Company decision-makers say that getting a better grip on commuting problems means getting creative about exactly what employees really need.

“Employers must respect when their employees are stressed by commuting, even on a single-event basis,” says Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO at New York City-based GetVoIP, a cloud commuting advisory company. “In my capacity as CEO, I’m mindful of extraordinary events which should exempt an employee from having to commute in for the day, or allow them to clock in late or return home early.”

Yonatan cites the following real-world scenarios where employers would be wise to soften their tone on mandatory attendance.

Family emergencies. Who wants an employee in the office who’s stressed out by leaving a sick child alone at home? Or one who’s dealing with the death of a loved one? “Your employees should feel comfortable writing in and openly discussing their personal crises,” Yonatan says. “We’re all human, and we all have them.”

Inclement weather. “If I see a hurricane is on its way, guess who’s not going into the office today? Me. Guess who else? My entire staff,” he says. “Why would I expose my staff to danger—or, at best, hordes of nervous commuters—just to pump them for a day of reduced productivity at the office?”

Special event traffic. Is an all-star game or other big event going on downtown tonight? “If so, we’re already clocked out by early afternoon so we can get out of dodge before the tourists start flooding into town,” Yonatan says.

Other firms take a different, yet equally creative path to minimizing lengthy commute times.

At OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting practice based in Norwalk, Conn., traffic is a “huge issue,” says CEO David Lewis. “Around here, a 15-mile commute for employees can take upwards of 90 minutes each day, both ways,” he says. “We’ve been at the forefront of guiding firms on how to overcome this as best as they can, as an active member of the state’s largest business association and by working directly with the governor’s office to brainstorm on ways to somehow address the traffic issue.”

Some ideas that the company has implemented include: 

Staggered workdays. The company has some employees who start their days before or after rush hour. “We have employees coming in as early as 7 a.m.,” Lewis says.

Shuttle service. The company has also pushed for and secured a shuttle service to its building from the local train station. “Now, several employees can commute by train and then van,” he says.

Remote work. For some employees, even working from home one day per week is a “huge piece to help ease the stress,” Lewis adds.

Public-private partnerships. “The state [of Connecticut] is looking at ways to improve the rail system,” he says, “which is vital to any traffic fixes.”  

Lewis also made it a point to establish his company headquarters close to public transit. “A commercial office space located by a train station is as much as 75 percent more expensive than space with no close train access,” he says. “That shows the importance of public transportation access.”

Lewis also made it a point to establish his company headquarters close to public transit. “A commercial office space located by a train station is as much as 75 percent more expensive than space with no close train access,” he says. “That shows the importance of public transportation access.”






Governments Pitch In

Companies in the U.S. need to take a page out of the international handbook and begin taking cars off the road, especially in major cities, workplace experts say.

"Some cities—mainly in Europe—are beginning to ban cars from certain parts of the cities or ban cars altogether," Sadow says. "Some are banning diesel-fuel cars from certain areas of the city, and others are implementing or have implemented laws where people cannot drive cars on city streets during certain times of the day or week." 

That's not the only way public-policymakers are helping workers get relief from problematic commutes.

"Government entities are establishing policies on telecommuting and passing regulations which require that a certain percentage of the workforce is covered by those policies," Leaser says. "But the big area where they're helping is with infrastructure."

For example, fiber optic networks are making it easy to work from home by bringing high-speed networks to consumers, making every home a potential office. "The upsides for government are big," Leaser says. "Fewer cars on the road means less need for costly infrastructure. And taking cars off the road reduces gas and oil consumption and pollution."

‘Nobody should spend 4 percent of their year commuting.... Between population expansion, suburban migration and the limits of highway infrastructure, commuting has become a modern-day nightmare.’
Dary Merckens

U.S. companies can also look to China for creative strategies designed to curb commuting headaches.

"With the Chinese approach, certain people can commute to work during certain days of the week," says Jeffrey Butler, a workplace consultant who advises major corporations on attracting and keeping Millennial workers. "Chinese cities use different ways to cut traffic, like only allowing commuters with certain license numbers or last names to use roadways on certain days."

This public policy, referred to as road space rationing, has dual uses for China. "Typically, this is used to reduce pollution, but it can also be used to decrease the amount of traffic heading into some cities," Butler says. Cities can also use big data strategies to figure out when different segments of the population should go to work to achieve optimal transportation results." 

Technology, from faster Internet connection speeds to cheap storage and collaboration software, makes it easy for most workers to telecommute.

"Web conferencing allows people to host virtual conferences, and file sharing programs make it easy to collaborate to get work done," Leaser says. "The benefits to companies are huge—everything from lower real estate costs to higher engagement and a more diverse, inclusive workforce."


Taking a Detour

Some professionals have grown so frustrated over their commutes that they completely changed their career paths as a result.

"After my last big corporate role doing crisis communications work at Blackberry, I was starting to think about what I was going to do next and began taking interviews and meetings in Manhattan," says Heidi Davidson, founder of Galvanize Worldwide, a consultancy specializing in crisis communications work. "I found myself thinking, 'what am I doing?' I really didn't want to face a long commute again."

Davidson switched gears and founded Galvanize, and she hasn't looked back.

"I figured that others were like me and wanted to do great work without the commute and find better balance," she says. "We now have 58 people across the U.S. and Canada consulting with us. They're seasoned marketing professionals, many with 20-plus years of experience working from wherever in the world they want. "We communicate via phone and video conference, but ultimately we have happier teams, happy clients and we're incredibly competitive."

"It's been five years now, and we're still growing," she adds. "And there's no long commute into Manhattan every day."

Brian O'Connell is is a Bucks County, Pa.-based freelance business writer.


Explore Further

SHRM provides resources to help companies prepare for the challenges that affect employees and the workplace.

Thirteen percent of employers provided transit subsidies in 2018, up from 10 percent in 2014, according to the SHRM 2018 Employee Benefits survey.

SHRM president and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., testified before the Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions in July 2018 on the benefits of the Workflex in the 21st Century Act (H.R. 4219) for both employers and employees.

Information for employers on the employment tax treatment of fringe benefits, including transit and parking benefits, from the Internal Revenue Service.

An advisor with the Job Accommodation Network explains whether the ADA requires employers to provide accommodation for employees who have trouble getting to work because of their disability.

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