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