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It Doesn't Matter If the Office Is Cute. What Matters Is the Commute.

How many times will we read an article saying this calendar event will be what compels employees to renounce their remote-working preferences for a return to office life circa 2019? The limit does not exist. After I returned from winter break, I read yet another piece on how workplace strategists could keep returning workers' morale high as they came back to the office, and saw that the advice remained admirably consistent: Focus on a nice physical space and people will want to return.

All of these "the space makes the difference" articles tend to ignore one thing: Workers have to get there. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commuter spends approximately 50 minutes a day getting to and from work. That's lower than the pre-pandemic average of 54 minutes, and per the New York Times, that drop is largely attributable to newly-flexible workplaces: 

With fewer employers demanding rigid 9-to-5 schedules, the morning and evening rush hours thinned out. People still drove a lot — running errands in the middle of the day between Zoom meetings — but those who had to commute at traditional times had less traffic to contend with. 

While lower commute times are great, a growing number of workers are asking why they're spending time going to and from their employer for free. WBUR's On Point had a fascinating segment this Tuesday on whether or not workplaces should start factoring transit times into employee compensation. Christopher Wiese, an assistant professor of industrial organization psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology or Georgia Tech, pointed out that the switch to remote work during the pandemic caused workers to re-examine whether or not they really had to lose nearly five hours a week to get to the same jobs they were already doing at home:

Before the pandemic, workers really didn't consider whether or not they should be compensated for the commute.

But, during the pandemic, they learned that they could do their jobs from home and are questioning why they even need to come in. So for those workers who are going through that returning to office, they're definitely reconsidering whether or not they should be compensated for that time.

The shift toward regarding the commute as part of the job and not merely the unpleasant friction accompanying employment might be part of a larger shift in the employee/employer model. As Wiese goes on to say in the On Point segment, some employers do already offer some compensatory benefits for commuting -- think of the shuttles that companies like Google or Apple offer to employees so they don't have to bear transit costs, or employers who offer commuter checks to offset public transit expenses. 

You want your workers in your beautifully designed workspace? Help them feel like they're not being taken advantage of by offering pick-up laundry service at home. 

Heck -- you free remote workers from the tyranny of juggling housework between Zoom calls by linking housework benefits to in-office presence and you'll have bodies at (hot)desks as often as you want. It all comes down to workers feeling as if their time is valuable. And it's on managers and workplace strategists to recognize that feeling and act on it.