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Commuting from your bedroom to your kitchen table may have granted you some creature comforts, like staying in your pajamas until noon or snuggling with your dog instead of fighting for a seat on a packed train. It’s probably also saved you some serious time.
The daily commute — which, back in 2015, was 26 minutes each way for the average U.S. worker — has been squashed for many, at least for now. Collectively, workers who kept their jobs in the wake of COVID-19 have millions of extra hours on their hands per week, according to calculations from Diego Mendez-Carbajo, an economic education specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Using Census Bureau data, Mendez-Carbajo looked at the average daily commuting time for three suburban counties nestled around larger metro areas: DuPage County, Ill. (29.57 minutes), St. Louis County, Mo. (24.30 minutes) and Fairfax County, Va. (32.18 minutes).
He compared those figures to the number of employed residents in the three areas (as per the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and found that, between April and July, workers in each county potentially saved up to 1.5 million hours every week by ditching the morning commute. That weekly savings doubles if you factor in a two-way trip.
Of course, many people did still have to go into work during those four months, as working from home isn’t possible for “essential workers” or people who work in industries like dining and retail. Overall, the daily commute hasn’t changed much for many low-income workers, who have always had fewer choices when it comes to where to live and how to get to work.
But for those who CAN telecommute, the implications are significant.
What does a workday minus the commute really mean? Possibly happier employees, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and host of the podcast Mentally Strong People. People with longer commutes often skip their trips to the gym, errands and much-needed time with loved ones, she says.
“They spend a lot of the time in the car thinking about how they’re wasting time, wishing they were either with family or friends or doing something productive,” Morin says.
A 2014 study from the University of Waterloo in Canada found that as a person’s commute grows, their satisfaction with life reduces. Employees with long commutes feel the pressures of a time crunch more acutely, which can heighten their overall stress levels, according to the study.
Workers’ stress levels are especially impacted by the amount of control they feel they have over their commute, Morin says. (If you’ve ever been late to work because of a delayed train, or a traffic jam, you can probably relate).
Ditching the daily commute has some drawbacks. Some people have missed having downtime to listen to their favorite podcast, or to just feel a distinct separation between work and home, Morin says. But there are other ways to create a boundary, like going for a walk after work or listening to that podcast while they do something else — like cook dinner.
From the moment offices first closed, predictions about what the pandemic means for the future of work began swirling. Some people pondered working from home forever. A recent survey from FlexJobs, an online service that helps job seekers find remote and flexible work, found that 65% of respondents want to become full-time remote employees post-pandemic.
We aren’t in a place yet to know exactly what the workday will look like post-COVID. But it’s clear that forcing people back into cars or packed trains would take back a lot of the time they’ve been saving. And maybe their sanity, too.