Memes embed quickly. Not all memes are useful. ‘Earn the commute’ is the wrong way to frame the return to the office.
‘Earning the commute’ has become a common way to describe the work employers need to do to get people to work in offices again. However, like many simple catchphrases it obscures more than it reveals:
- Yes, commute time is one of the inconveniences of office working. However, it is rarely the key one in a decision to go to the office.
- The focus on time reflects our ongoing obsession with time as the measure of work productivity. We have inherited a time focus from the days of Taylorism management science and for many employers time remains the focus for a want of any other measure of worker value. For knowledge workers, time is rarely the key issue. We’d be far better to focus on outputs and throw away the time clock.
- The time of a commute is usually wasted in an average work day because of that time obsession. Meetings that go for an integer multiple of an hour regardless of need are far more destructive of value. Employers know on a videoconference they can tune out and do other work more productively.
- A bigger inconvenience is that a fixed working hours in fixed location rarely suits the lives of employees who have family obligations and other commitments that could be more easily managed in a hybrid work model. That has nothing to do with the commute and everything to do with flexibility.
- Autonomy increased as people worked from home in 2020. With less physics connection and urgent issues to solve, people discovered the value of making decisions around their own work. Hidden behind earning the commute is employees grappling with loss of this autonomy.
- The value of a face to face interaction in a workplace has to be the reason for asking employees to come together. Whether that is simple social connection, collaboration, problem solving, building capability or more, there are reasons for people to meet in person. Earning the commute implies this value occurs across a whole work day. It does not, which is why many organisations are choosing 2-3 days as their preferred model.
Don’t seek to earn the commute. Throw away the clock as a management tool. Focus instead on the outcomes you need and how best to bring employees to achieve them. Productivity increased for many in 2020 because they worked in new and better ways. Your barrier to returning to old model of work is not the commute it is that productivity, autonomy and lifestyle flexibility.