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What Are We Doing With the Time We Save By Not Commuting?

  • Study of knowledge workers finds that remote work arrangements typically save 41 minutes that would have been spent commuting
  • Independent workers are more likely to recoup personal time, while the time saved for managers is offset by a longer workday
  • Researchers suggest that better quality employee interactions and emphasizing a work-life divide may be essential if remote work arrangements become more commonplace

Between traffic jams, struggles over parking spaces, and lousy drivers, the commute has been a long-maligned part of the workday. Employees who are working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic have often regarded the elimination of a journey to and from work as the removal of a key stressor in a tumultuous time.

A recent study by researchers at Harvard University, Wellesley College, and the University of New Hampshire sought to determine how workers were using the time that normally would have been spent in a car or on public transit. They found that while independent workers often realized personal benefits from the shift, managers usually ended up spending more time working.

The study looked at the time use diaries of 1,300 knowledge workers from August 2019, June 2020, and August 2020. The typical worker saved 41 minutes of time by not commuting, and employees with no managerial responsibilities typically used it for personal activities. The typical independent employee recouped more than an hour of personal time, with no change in their workday. Many spent more time focused on personal tasks in the morning and extended their workday beyond 5 p.m.

By contrast, the average manager recouped only 23 minutes of personal time while their average workday increased by 56 minutes. Their daily workflow also changed significantly, with more time spent interacting with employees and others via phone, virtual meetings, and e-mails.

Overall, respondents viewed remote work arrangements favorably, with 58 percent saying they had a positive opinion of the arrangement and just 13 percent having a negative perception. There had already been strong demand for remote work before the pandemic, with 37 percent of the August 2019 respondents saying they wished they could spend at least three days working remotely; the share increased to 45 percent among 2020 respondents.

However, commutes also helped clearly delineate the beginning and end of time at work. As remote work has upset the traditional work-life divide, some employees are even adopting virtual commutes to help restore a sense of balance.

The report’s authors suggest that in addition to maintaining a healthy distinction between one’s work and personal life, a more permanent remote work arrangement requires higher quality interactions between employees. These can be aided by technological options, including digital assistants and virtual organizational tools.

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