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How Employers Are Helping Workers Commute Safely During the Pandemic

A group of people wearing face masks on a subway train.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated working from home, as well as flexible scheduling and other flexible work arrangements. With so much uncertainty about public health, many employees don't feel safe commuting to work every day. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance on using different forms of transportation safely, but there's been a significant drop in public-transit use during the pandemic. As reported in Time magazine, "ridership rates have been decimated," while "subway ridership was down as much as 92 percent in New York at the height of the outbreak there." 

Employers have pivoted to accommodate this new normal, changing how they meet the evolving needs of employees in getting to work under conditions of ongoing uncertainty.  

"The pandemic has been a shock to the system," said Sohier Hall, CEO of Seattle-based commuter benefits platform Luum, "and that shock has been unevenly distributed, impacting essential workers differently from white-collar and knowledge workers." While many employees continue to work from home, Hall noted, "60 percent of the workforce still goes into work every day." 

Commuting During the Pandemic 

The first question employers and employees face is often whether and when to come back into work and how to make that return as safe as possible. Answers depend on many factors and are different from company to company. 

"Things have improved significantly over the months here in New York City," said Eugenie Fanning, vice president of people at commercial real estate firm SquareFoot. "But we're still mindful that a pandemic rages on. When we reopened our offices in July, we made sure not to require everyone to come back all at once. It's been up to the employees to assess when they'd feel most comfortable to return." 

How employees choose to commute to work is also a complex consideration. "We recognize that some people aren't comfortable yet taking public transportation, and we want to be responsive to their needs," Fanning said. "We're all figuring out what's best for us individually." 

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Return to Work

For James Pearson, CEO of North Carolina-based small-business advisory firm eVenturing, the biggest challenge was persuading nervous employees to return to the office. "With everyone used to working from home, it became hard to convince our employees to come into work, especially due to the perceived risk of the virus when taking public transportation," he said. Faced with these pandemic-related commuting challenges, companies have developed various solutions to support employee commutes.

HR: Flexibly Supporting Employee Commutes 

"HR professionals are the ones being called upon to come up with plans for the return-to-work experience and solve the challenges involved," Hall at Luum said. Employers have worked hard to integrate flexible ways to support employee health and safety into their return-to-work plans. 

"There's been a whole rethink about subsidies, reimbursements and policies to support the commute," Hall said. The monthly subway pass or monthly parking pass has become less relevant in a landscape of staggered schedules and employees working partially from home, partially in the office. "So many of our clients have asked us to offer flexible daily parking" and parking reservations, Hall said. 

Here are some of the transportation and commuter options employers have developed:

  • Offering employees incentives for active commuting, such as by bike, electric bike or scooter.
  • Providing a means for "closed-network" employee carpooling that enables contact tracing.
  • Offering corporate shuttles with seat reservations for social distancing as well as contact tracing.
  • Offering stipends for parking so employees can drive alone instead of taking public transportation.
  • Offering stipends to use ride-hailing services and cabs.

"We've long offered complimentary monthly subway cards," Fanning said. "But we know that not everyone is ready to get back onto the city's subways and buses, so we've dedicated the same budget toward other alternatives: Citi Bike, Revel [electric moped sharing service], Uber or whatever other options our brokers are most comfortable using."  

Impact on Employee Experience

Trust is the most critical factor in the relationship between employers and employees, Hall said, and that's especially true in times of crisis and uncertainty. "Trust needs to be there when an employer asks someone to come into work when employees are anxious about their safety." 

How can HR professionals earn employee trust and build employees' confidence in coming to work safely? Hall offers a four-step process based on his experiences helping Luum's client companies solve commuting challenges:

  1. Recognize and prioritize the commute as important to the employee experience.
  2. Understand the needs of employees, which means being sensitive to issues of equity and inclusion.
  3. Invest to accommodate employee commuting needs, understanding that one method does not work for all.
  4. Find a system or platform to enable you to holistically support commuting.

When HR professionals follow those four steps, the results are better employee engagement, stronger trust, more productivity and healthy employees, Hall said. Eugenie Fanning's experience supports that idea: "Because we listened and accommodated the commuting preferences of our brokers, they're back out in the field showing offices to clients. It wasn't a difficult perk to offer, but it did require us to be flexible and meet our people where they are."

Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.


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