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Commuting Has Changed. Can Employers Keep Up?

As commuting habits change in the age of hybrid work and return-to-office plans, how can employers support their in-office employees?

Commuters travel to work

Is your company’s return-to-office (RTO) plan driving employees away, or is it the driving itself that is causing added stress? New commuting trends may hold the answer.

Most companies (90 percent) are forging ahead with RTO mandates so that workers are in person three to four days each week by the end of the year. There are already fewer people working from home in the U.S. today than just three years ago. In 2022, 15.2 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in remote work compared to 17.9 percent in 2021, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

As companies ramp up efforts to bring people back to the office, workers are divided on if—and how many days—they want to be there. One reason: the commute. Before the pandemic, most people spent a little more than an hour total getting to and from work each day, with 23 percent of workers saying they quit because of the commute.

When consulting firm EY began asking employees to return to the office, workers voiced concerns about challenges to doing so—one of which was increased commuting costs, according to Frank Giampietro, chief well-being officer at EY Americas.

EY received feedback from workers that they appreciated in-person connection and collaboration, so the firm sought ways to alleviate the pain. The firm created the EY WOW Transition Fund to accommodate those who wanted to return to the office. The fund was designed to reimburse employees for multiple out-of-pocket costs and provided $800 a year for commuting expenses as well as child care and pet care. 

“After putting the fund in place in February 2022, we saw a 150-percent increase in people coming into an EY office over the first six months of the fund’s implementation,” Giampietro said. EY has continued to see a steady increase in in-person time, he added, and EY is now very close to its target guidance of 40-percent to 60-percent time in person in most parts of its business.

As more organizations move to bring workers back into the office, understanding how people are commuting to work can help drive decisions around schedules, benefits and more. Here’s a look at several key findings from the U.S. Census Bureau’s brief related to commuting behavior.

Commuting Trends to Watch

With hybrid work arrangements emerging as the most common and most preferred option, the daily commute looks much different now than it did in 2019. For example, the number of people using public transportation has slowly crept toward pre-pandemic levels but has not fully rebounded in any of the seven of the U.S. metropolitan areas with the most public transportation commuters. There were roughly 700,000 fewer transit commuters in the New York City metro area in 2022 than there were in 2019, the Census Bureau reported.

While public transportation has been slow to regain users, the share of U.S. workers driving alone to work has also decreased to 68.7 percent in 2022, about 7 percentage points less than the 75.9 percent in 2019, according to the brief.

Trent Griffin-Braaf, CEO of Tech Valley Hospitality Shuttle, an upstate New York company that offers workforce commuter services, has observed this trend. He has an increasing number of people carpooling.

“We have seen commuting change a lot in the past two years with inflation and people going back to work,” Griffin-Braaf said. “The most common change we have noticed is people’s need to save money. Many are trying to either get rid of their vehicles to save money or use services like our shared shuttles and public transportation to eliminate the rising cost of gas, insurance, car notes, etc.” 

How people get to work may be shifting, but the time it takes to commute to work hasn’t changed much for those returning to the office, according to the Census Bureau data. In 2019, the average commute was 27.6 minutes, and in 2022, it was only about a minute less—26.4 minutes. 

“We try to keep commute times to a minimum with our services because studies show that the longer the commute, the shorter the employment period tends to last,” Griffin-Braaf said.

However, a recent study released by Stanford economists using data from Gusto, a payroll provider, found that the average distance from home to the workplace has increased 2.7 times. According to data collected from 6,000 employers nationwide, the distance between an employee’s home and office jumped from 10 miles in 2019 to 27 miles in 2023. The same report found that high-income earners are traveling the furthest distance to work, up from 18 miles to 42 miles.

Interestingly, not everyone dreads the commute. Reporters found some people who missed their commutes during the pandemic. One woman told The Washington Post she sat in her car in the driveway after each workday to have some personal time and mentally shift from work back to personal mode.

As more companies end full-time remote work, employees are getting back into—or creating—new commuting routines. Just as organization leaders had to rethink commuting benefits in 2021, the shift back to in-person work means it may be time to revisit current commuter benefits to determine if they are aligned with employees’ needs today.


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