“The ideal commute is not actually no commute” relies on the separation of home and work

Eric Jaffe looks at some evidence that suggests Americans want a bit of a commute to detox from work:

To want a longer trip to or from work may seem strange, if not pathologically self-loathing, when considering all that’s known about the stresses and health hazards of commuting. Still, I’m not entirely alone here. You might think the ideal commute is no commute, but when you actually ask commuters, that isn’t always what they say. In a memorable Washington Post piece from years back, tracking the affection some commuters have for their home-to-office-and-back trip, one man “cursed with a three-minute drive to his job” wished he had some “time to detox”…

A classic study from 2001, conducted by Lothlorien Redmond and Patricia Mokhtarian, asked roughly 1,300 workers in the San Francisco area to report both their “actual” and their “ideal” commute times. The researchers found that the average one-way ideal was actually 16 minutes. Nearly a third of the respondents reported an ideal one-way time of 20 minutes or more. Less than 2 percent reported an ideal under 4 minutes, and only 1.2 percent reported an ideal commute of zero commute...

Now, that’s the exception, not the rule. Redmond and Mokhtarian did find that most respondents, nearly 52 percent, preferred a commute at least 5 minutes shorter than their actual one (which, on average for these folks, was 40 minutes). But 87 people in the sample, or nearly 7 percent, had an ideal commute that was at least 5 minutes longer than their actual commute (which, in this case, was 10 minutes, on average). For the 42 percent of participants whose actual and ideal trips were more or less the same, the average commute was 15 minutes, one way. It seems a quarter hour is something like a preferred commuter constant…

More recent attempts to understand commuter desires have uncovered plenty of nuance. Mode obviously matters. Some work suggests that drivers find their commute more stressful than others, on account of traffic, unexpected delays, and the existence of other drivers. Transit riders can feel some stress, too, especially when the train or bus is delayed, and they also have to worry more about boredom (though that’s quickly becoming obsolete). Walkers and cyclists report the most relaxing and exciting trips.

The type of day you’ve had matters, too. One study, published late last year, recorded trip diaries of 76 commuters over a five-day period. When the demands of the work day were low, the detachment commuters felt during the trip home didn’t influence their anxiety levels once they got there (accounting for travel time). But on days with lots of stress at work, the opposite was true: more detachment on the commute meant less anxiety—and more serenity—upon getting home.

All of this makes some sense within the current system where many people work in a more corporate setting (don’t underestimate the connections between large social changes and the rise of the modern white-collar office) and live within more sprawling metropolitan regions.

Yet, this is based on a social system where work and home are typically separated. This hasn’t always been the case throughout human history. Centuries ago, many people lived and worked within the same building or property. In other words, this idea that you go somewhere to work didn’t really exist. In Crabgrass Frontier, historian Kenneth Jackson describes how even as late as 1815 49 out of 50 workers lived within a one mile walk of their place of employment. Home and work continued to get pulled apart during the Industrial Revolution as well as the urbanization that affected developing countries.

Talk of having no commute for most workers has existed for several decades due to the possibilities for telecommuting. (Granted, this option is more restricted for certain kinds of jobs, particularly in service and manual labor sectors.) Still, many businesses and workers continue to want to go to an office and so we’ll continue to participate in and analyze commutes.

Considering workplace flexibility

Some jobs offer more flexibility than others where a worker has an opportunity to structure their own schedule or make it to other important events in life that are held during typical work hours. Sociologist Alfred Young has looked into the issue of workplace flexibility and recently made a report to a conference:

When an assembly-line worker at a Midwestern auto-parts plant studied by Alford A. Young Jr. , a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, left work without permission to coach his son’s football team in a championship game, he paid a high price, Young told about 200 researchers, government officials and employers Tuesday at a Washington, D.C. conference on flexibility.

The story sprang from a study of the means employees use to resolve work-family conflicts–collaborating with the boss vs. sneaking around. The worker, whom Dr. Young called James, had committed to coaching his son’s team, and when the team made the championship round he asked to take a Saturday afternoon off to be present. The boss said no.

When the day arrived, James left work for lunch and later called his boss to say that his car had broken down, saying “ ‘I called Triple-A but I don’t know if I can make it back,’ ” Young says. James got to coach the game, but he also got written up by his supervisor and busted to a lower seniority level.

Such disruptions can be avoided, Young says, if supervisors bend a little, perhaps even breaking a rule or two, to try to find a solution within the work team, perhaps by allowing a shift trade; this benefits employers by motivating employees to go the extra mile and remain loyal to the company.  While this happens routinely at many workplaces, about 80% of all workers still lack the workplace flexibility they want, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the conference sponsor. What doesn’t work, his study found, allowing to develop the kind of clash that encompassed James.

I feel like a lot of the talk about telecommuting and the changes that might come to the workplace due to changing technology might really be about increasing the flexibility of workers. If the main concern is that a job gets done, perhaps it doesn’t matter as much whether an employee keeps certain office hours. Younger workers also seem to like the idea of flexibility, to not be completely tied down because of a job. But perhaps even the American small business spirit could be tied to this issue – some people enjoy being able to set their own hours and agenda.  But this may not apply in the same way to areas like manufacturing.

If 80% of workers desire more flexibility, is this something more businesses and organizations should address? I would be interested in knowing what holds businesses back from being more flexible with workers. Profits? Appearances? A certain workplace culture? Directives from higher-ups?