That daily trek to the office may just offer everything you’ve needed after two years of remote work.
In 2020, you probably didn’t miss your commute. You reveled in the extra time used for sleep, family, hobbies, and exercise—not to mention less time in traffic and less pollution.
But after two years of remote working, we may need that trek to the office. American workers’ job satisfaction and mental health continue to deteriorate. And a commute might be exactly what you need right now.
Here are six reasons why that time spent going to the office is worth it.
1. Commutes give you ritual.
The rote routine of getting dressed, getting kids off to school and off to work might seem robotic, but it’s beneficial to your body and mind, says James R. Bailey, professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership at George Washington University.
Commutes add structure to our daily routine, and in that pattern, our brains find safety and predictability. “When we can predict the future, we are less vulnerable to the dangers that may pop up when we are uncertain about what to expect,” he says. Rituals add some stability and certainty into an otherwise unstable and uncertain world—alleviating feelings of grief, anxiety, and increasing confidence.
Rituals produce numerous benefits. They lower your anxiety before an important task or performance and they help us recover faster when we experience loss or failure. Planning your day or week ahead can make you show up at the workplace in a more productive, energetic and happier mood. The time can allow you to focus on future planning, steps involved to reach your goals and prepare.
2. Commutes separate work and home life.
Commutes allow time to transfer between our home and work identities.
Technology has certainly made it easier to stay connected 24/7, but as we found during the pandemic, it’s difficult to switch off when you’re working remotely. As a result, there’s not much separation between work and home life.
A 2020 survey by TELUS International found that four in five workers found it hard to “shut off” in the evenings. And a recent World Health Organization report noted that working from home can blur the boundaries, lead to overwhelm and longer work hours. Remote working allows people to spend more time with family and friends, but it also can lead to social isolation and irritability, the report found.
This is important, because employees’ mental health is at an all-time low. Nearly a third of workers surveyed said their mental health has declined over the past year—up from 24 percent at the end of 2020, according to data from Corporate Wellness Magazine.
As we know, American workers are burned out today more than ever before. At least 46% of the working population is at risk of burnout, according to May research by Westfield Health. A commute lets you set healthy boundaries and avoid burnout. An office commute can offer that much-needed separation between work and home, says Bailey. Once we step out of our cars or off the train and into the office, we switch on a work identity. And when we leave, we can relax and switch back off.
Your work life and home life each require different ways of thinking, acting, and reacting. And a commute actually helps separate those two parts of ourselves, says Bailey.
3. Commutes let you turn off your brain.
Time in the car or on public transit can give you a break from being “on.” When you’re traveling to and from work, you can drop all roles and expectations, whether it’s being a parent, spouse, an employee or a manager. It may be the one time when no one is speaking to you and you have quiet. Or it may be the one time you have to think about other things you enjoy, listen to music, catch up on podcasts, or read a good book.
The time also allows you to daydream, which can be healthy because it’s been shown to boost creativity and improve your mood. Sometimes when you lose yourself in another world, you might actually have a creative breakthrough, stumbling upon an idea or solution to a problem you weren’t consciously trying to solve. Researchers call it the incubation effect, where your unconscious makes connections that weren’t originally obvious.
Because few people had that decompression time with remote work, Microsoft recently integrated a feature in its workplace analytics tool Viva that will suggest a “virtual commute,” or a 10-minute meditation to decompress from work to the dinner table. People might be asked to make a to-do list, rate their day, or do a guided meditation from Headspace.
4. Commutes can make you more productive and happier.
In 2017, Harvard Business School Prof. Francesca Gino found that people who use their commuting time to think through plans for the day—or “prospection”—were more productive once they arrived at the office than those who did other mental tasks or looked for distractions.
People who maintained small routines on their way to work—whether it was checking the news or reviewing their calendar—tend to feel more excited about their day, have more job satisfaction and feel less stressed out, according to research by Hal Hershfield, a researcher and associate professor of marketing, behavioral decision making, and psychology at University of California Los Angeles.
5. Commutes give you exercise without trying.
You’ll burn calories if you’re commuting by public transit, because it means walking between connections and destinations. That means you’ll burn calories every weekday: an average of 300 calories a day, (the equivalent of a jam donut.) It’s even more if you bike or walk to work. That’s 450 to 750 calories per hour cycling and 200 to 350 calories for an hour walk.
Americans were doing pretty well pre-pandemic: the number of workers across the U.S. who biked to work increased 61% over the last decade. Since the pandemic, as remote work flourished, Americans have gained an average 29 pounds.
6. Commutes offer connection with other humans.
Isolation and lack of career progression is becoming one of the largest reported concerns among remote workers. That can lead to increased stress, bad decision making, and loneliness, cited as a key factor in the Great Resignation.
Rather than walking in your slippers from your bedroom to your office and greeting your dog only each morning, if you commute, you’ll be seeing real people on your way. If you talk to them, whether that’s chatting with people on the bus or in the coffee shop, you’re likely boosting your mood.
You’ll also get the added benefit of socialization in the office, which can improve your relationships, teamwork, motivation and health. A Tel Aviv University study found that peer social support reduces the risk of mortality among men.
Even if you do endure those commuter hassles along the way, they give you a shared experience, says Bailey of George Washington. Your commuting experience may be the first thing you discuss when you get to the office, and while ordinary banter, it’s universal.
“You and your coworkers or peers are people of the same club,” he says. “You are commuters. For the day, week, year, or decade, you are bonded by a common struggle. That brings you closer. That makes you better colleagues.”