Conversations around the social and organisational value of commuting are becoming more common. Could remote workers be missing out on something important?
When we made the shift to remote working back in March, I anticipated a seismic shift in my working life. It didn’t occur straight away.
A month or two into lockdown, a friend asked if I preferred working from home to our usual office-based routine. I had to think for a while before I could find an answer. In the end, I found that the main difference was that I didn’t have to commute any more.
Whilst I missed chatting with colleagues, I don’t have a lot of downtime anyway, and my role requires a lot of solo work. The transition to remote working was a relatively easy one for me to make. And the big plus was that I didn’t have to get on the tube in the morning.
At first, this was an unequivocally good thing. The tube is always crowded in the morning, and often unpleasant. I could now sleep in later. Breakfast no longer consisted of a coffee on the walk from the station to the office. And at the end of the day, I seemed to magically teleport from work to home.
But over the last few weeks, I’ve increasingly missed the commute. Initially, I had trouble understanding why. But after doing some reading, it turned out I wasn’t alone.
For many of us, commuting makes up a significant portion of our week. This is often viewed as lost time, probably because commuting can be stressful or unpleasant. But it serves a social purpose that is easily lost when working from home.
Commuting is interstitial time - time with no specific purpose. Many of us read, watch tv or listen to podcasts. So much so, in fact, that podcast consumption has changed across the board during COVID-19.
For many of us, the commute provides a period of time where we are harder to reach. In the mornings, this can be stressful. If you’re running late due to a delay on the tube, it can be difficult to let someone know. But at the end of the day, the commute can have another effect. Because it’s difficult to work on the commute, a lot of people don’t feel any pressure to do so. So we’re free to spend our time as we wish.
But when working from home, that time is gone. With all the necessary apparatus for us to continue working right there in our bedrooms, it’s harder to say no when things crop up at all hours. That’s why people are working longer hours than pre-COVID-19.
Many charity workers have significant family commitments. It’s hard enough to separate work time from family time. So when do you find the time to rest, relax and recharge?
Many of us found this time on our commutes. This is because the commute provided us with the perfect excuse. But we don’t need an excuse to prioritise our mental wellbeing.
At the onset of lockdown, some experts suggested recreating your commute from home could have a positive effect on your routine, productivity and mental health. At the time, I thought this was a silly idea. And I wasn’t alone.
But there is logic to it. A commute breaks up your day. It clearly delineates the difference between ‘work’ time and ‘home’ time. Without these clear barriers, it becomes very easy to work longer and longer hours. This leads to an increased risk of stress, fatigue and burnout - all contributory factors to more serious mental health conditions.
A commute is just one example of interstitial time. Throughout our normal working day, there are a number of small interactions that we may not pay much attention to - taking a break to grab a coffee, chatting with a co-worker while waiting for a meeting to start, holding the door open for a stranger in the hallway (and doing the special ‘polite strangers acknowledging each other’ nod).
It is unlikely that these were the first things on your mind when we began working from home. But after a few months of remote working, it is normal to increasingly feel their absence. For all it’s benefits, the remote working routine can lack spontaneity. As one day blends into the next, this routine can become monotonous - leading to a decrease in motivation and productivity.
"The social sector ‘does’ human connection better than any other. We live and breathe it. It’s who we are and what we care about. It’s in the services we deliver and the shared ‘moments in-between’, with smiles and small kindnesses, and often over tea. This expertise, along with COVID and the rapid development of Tech for Good services, has given us the opportunity and the motivation to address human connection in digital."
- Matt McStravick, Deepr
This resource outlines five conditions necessary for meaningful human interaction:
By integrating the framework into day-to-day operations, charity leaders can establish a respectful and inclusive remote working environment. This will help to offset losses in morale, productivity and output that may be associated with a sudden switch to remote working.
Learn more about the framework