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If You Want People Back At Work, Get Rid of the Commute

Among the most useful ideas that our general session panelists introduced at Enterprise Connect 2023, two stand out: make the office a magnet, not a mandate, and "workers are now expecting employers to earn the commute."

"Earning the commute," i.e. the idea that if you lose however many hours of your life going to and from work, there had better be a tradeoff, is a radical shift compared to the norms for pre-pandemic knowledge workers.

In the Before Times, a commute was simply a cost of doing business. While that commute time could be useful -- people often used the time as a "liminal space" to transition from one part of their life to another -- once remote work entered the picture, people discovered two things: They liked having higher control over their own time, and they felt a greater sense of wellness because they could better manage their competing obligations and aspirations.

Recently in the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo noted:

Collectively, Americans now spend 60 million fewer hours per day traveling to work. That’s 60 million hours for which they weren’t being compensated that they can now spend exercising, taking care of their children, getting a bit more sleep and starting their workday earlier or ending it later.

Workers are delighted by the switch. According to a survey by the Conference Board, overall job satisfaction in 2022 was at just over 62 percent, a high not seen in decades, and people with hybrid jobs that allowed them to work at home and at a job site were the happiest.

When someone makes a crack that offices are "competing with the sofa," that misses the point of the debate. If you put a sofa in the office and encourage employees to sit in it while they beaver away at their email, those employees still have to commute home and do their laundry at the end of the day. By contrast, that sofa at home is right near the washing machine; a person can chill on it and shoot for Inbox Zero while also doing a load of darks, then go for a family walk at the end of their workday.

The ability to control one's time and wring the most from it has been the driving factor in both sides represented in the argument over returning to the office full time: The pro-return people are arguing that they, and their employees, will get more out of the time they're at work. Meanwhile, the advocates for remote or flexible work have been arguing that remote work has shown it's possible to optimize all of their time, not just the time on the job; they're not willing to compromise the quality of their non-work time when their remote productivity is provably as good as in-office productivity.

And that's why foosball tables and pizza and beer don't work as return-to-office incentives. These perks don't improve the quality of life for reluctant returners; they only show those employees that the upper management either doesn't understand or doesn't care about employee priorities. That sentiment is dangerous because a worker-management disconnect is bad for business.

If companies really want to bring people back to an office, the answer is obvious: Make it easy and quick to get to the office. Unfortunately, that's much, much easier written than done -- so perhaps it's time for workplace leaders to take a long look at what's really being discussed when we discuss the resistance to returning to the office.