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Reframing Your Commute

Commuting sucks. And working from home is awesome. At least, that's what most people seem to think. And the data is compelling: studies have found that many people find their commute alienating and exhausting. It can even be bad for our relationships. A 2021 Zebra survey found that more than a third of those polled would take a pay cut to shorten their commutes. One study found that 40% of workers would rather clean their toilet than commute to their workplace.

One big reason people want to ditch their commutes: they can save money. They found this out during the pandemic, of course. In 2019, just 6% of Americans worked primarily from home in 2019. By the end of 2020, that number had increased to more than 33.3%. An Upwork study in September of that year found the average American had saved $2,000 by ditching their commute. LendingTree weighed in with a study that found that remote work led to debt reductions of approximately $9,117 for the average American. Meanwhile, 60% of millennial and adult Gen Z respondents to a Bankrate survey that year said that working from home was financially beneficial.

But before we consign the commute to a concrete coffin and bury it a thousand feet under the sea, Kristie McAlpine would like us to consider the notion that our commutes could be used to positive effect. Kristie is an assistant professor of management at Rutgers University. She and her co-author, Matthew Piszczek of Wayne State University, wrote a paper recently that explored the value of the commute as a transitional buffer between work and home.

Their work got quite a lot of publicity, but in the wake of the pandemic, with many workers content with working from home and not inclined to go back to the office, not everyone was happy with the way Kristie's study was represented in some media.

"There was a lot of anger directed at us." Kristie says. "People were saying we must be funded by corporations, and what agenda do we have?" Kristie was frustrated by this portrayal. "We aren't saying that commutes are good: we're saying that commutes can have positive aspects, that when we're mindful of them and think carefully about them, we can leverage (them) for the benefit of our own ends."

Liminal Space

Rather than focusing on the word commute, with all of its toxic associations, Kristie and Matthew refer in their study to 'liminal space," the boundary that separates one place or state from another. Like the threshold of a house. Or the airlock in a spaceship, if you prefer. For earthbound workers, it's that time and space that we have to pass through to get from work to home, and while many of us may have come to regard it as an onerous time suck, Kristie says it does have its uses.

"Commuting absolutely can be a stressful and negative activity in one's day," Kristie said. "But it also can help serve as a placeholder ... this opportunity space that people can use to leave work behind and then eventually kind of start to attach to the home role."

In some cases, the liminal space provided by a commute can be vital. Kristie says it can provide people who work in high stress environments with an opportunity to transition from one environment to another, and to reset along the way. She relates an anecdote about military drone operators, who conduct sometimes lethal combat missions from a base in the United States. And then go home to their families.

"They're spending all day engaged in potentially violent acts in their work, and they then leave this facility and then they drive to their kid's t-ball game. Talk about a contrast. It's not like people commute home from a war zone, typically."

Most of us aren't commuting from a war zone, of course, but that doesn't mean we don't get stressed and burned out by our jobs. Kristie says the liminal space provided by a commute gives us the chance to repair ourselves a little before we get home. She says friends of hers who worked in the medical field during the pandemic, often under extreme conditions, used their journeys home to shake off some of the stresses of the workplace and rejuvenate themselves.

"(They were) figuring out rituals, whether that's some exercise, whether that's taking the long way home, but needing to say I don't want to bring this home with me. I need to let go of this."

Detach, Relax and Master

This process of detachment from work is the first of three services that the liminal space between the workplace and the home can provide, Kristie says. By leaving the workplace you have physically detached from work; the space permits you to detach psychologically also — if you're willing to stop checking your work email and refocus your attention. "Maybe make a phone call to someone. Or if you're carpooling, have a conversation with someone."

The second service is an opportunity to relax. Kristie acknowledges that people who undergo grueling commutes on packed trains or jammed roads may find this idea laughable, but says it's worth trying to find ways to make the best of a bad situation. Listening to music on the train, or to audiobooks in the car, for example. Or finding a way to incorporate some kind of physical activity into your routine. "There's good evidence that work recovery is effectively achieved with active forms of commute. Having some way of getting your physical body engaged in some kind of movement can help you get to a place of relaxation."

The liminal space also gives people the change to engage in what Kristie calls a mastery experience. "Unlike relaxation, in which individuals engage in activities to unwind, mastery experiences present individuals with energizing activities that are designed to stretch their capabilities." Think learning a language, or knitting a sweater.

"When viewed through the lens of much of the commuting literature, in which stress processes are front and center, the idea that an individual's commute could involve opportunities for mastery is unintuitive," Kristie writes in her paper. "However, taking a role transition perspective again allows us to see the commute as liminal time and space carved out from one's day that can be used for hobbies or personal development. Rather than approaching the commute solely with the intention of minimizing its duration, an individual who experiences the value of the liminal transitional period can then craft it to meet their interests and goals."

Work is Greedy

Of course, if you're working from home, you don't have this problem of how to reframe your commute. But Kristie argues that in itself can be a problem. Because without the buffer of that liminal space between home and work, there's a danger that work can bleed into home life.

"If you look at the data on remote workers, people are excited to tally up how much time they save on commutes," she says. "But what they don't account for is that they tend to use it for more work. Work is greedy. And people end up replacing their commute time, not with other role transition and work recovery activities, but they replace it with more work."

Anyone who has ever spent their commute checking work email knows that work can gobble up that liminal space. The transition to working from home, however, increases the risk of swallowing it whole. If you work on a laptop at the dining table, there is no threshold between the home and the office. There is no airlock. And many people missed that liminal space when they were sent home during the pandemic, Kristie says.

"Workers lamented the lost time during the commute home from work to unwind, listen to podcasts, and call friends," she says, pointing to reporting in The New York Times and The Washington Post. "Some telecommuters even reported leaving the house to sit in their parked car at the end of the workday to create the transition time and space that was previously built into their day by the commute home from work."

Kristie says you don't have to go quite that far to create that liminal space when you're working from home. If we can designate places in the home as workplaces, we automatically create a threshold. Or we can create a kind of virtual liminal space, by using ritual.

"I saw lots of ... interesting perspectives from people: they do walk their dog around the block, or they have a coffee ritual with a partner or a neighbor, or they ride their stationary bike, or they do some other kind of activity that's a ritual that kind of marks the start or end of the day."

Kristie says it's important to think about commuting and the liminal space that it provides because it will become increasingly important as the workplace adjusts in the future. Many white collar workers have proved they can work just as efficiently at home as in an office, and that's giving companies the opportunity to make cost savings on commercial space. Those changes could be good for everyone concerned, but they will require a change in mindset on behalf of both employers and employees, if the line between work and leisure is not to become even more blurred than it is now.

"The US has very little in terms of regulations on this," Kristie notes. The European Union has working time directives and there are lots of pieces of legislation at the country and even local levels that put limits around emails and work hours and who has the right to request flexibility. But American workers haven't really felt this sense of feeling like they deserve some voice around their work arrangements."

In other words, if we want to work from home without taking our work home with us, we have to create that liminal space ourselves, because no one, neither the government nor our employers, is going to do it for us.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Paddy Hirsch