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'Hours of my life I'm never going to get back': As offices reopen, workers resist bringing back the commute

When Wendy White, 57, quit her job in March, a key reason was her company's insistence employees return to the office in the midst of a pandemic.

White, the single mother of an 11-year-old son, had no child care options and was fearful of taking public transportation while COVID-19 was spreading. Now she is considering two job offers, one that would allow her to continue working remotely with occasional travel, and another in New York City, less than twenty-five miles from her Madison, New Jersey home.

"The commute plays so heavily into my decision,'' says White, adding she will probably take the remote position. "The job in New York would probably be easier, but I don’t want to have to commute four hours a day ... I've commuted in and out of Manhattan for the better part of 30 years, so I'm just kind of done.''

As many offices reopen after being shuttered during the COVID-19 health crisis, roughly 40% of workers say they want to continue working remotely according to a Harris Poll survey for USA TODAY. And for some, not having to commute on crowded trains, slow-moving buses, or in their cars, is one of the biggest perks of working from home.

In a survey of 2,100 remote workers taken between March and April, 84% said shedding their commute was the most significant benefit of working outside the office, while 58% said they would seek a new job if they couldn't continue doing their current job remotely, according to FlexJobs, a career service specializing in remote and flexible work.

"They see commuting as wasting their time and adding to their stress levels when they can do their jobs really well from home, avoid the stress caused by the daily grinding commute, and find more time for their families, all of which leads to improved mental health," Brie Reynolds, FlexJobs' career development manager, said in an email.

Commuting can be costly

Upwork, an online freelancing platform, says that working remotely during the pandemic saved many Americans not only time but money.

Between March and August of last year, employees who drove to their jobs before the pandemic and then began to work from home saved $758 million per day overall, for a total of $90 billion, according to an Upwork study.

The study's calculations were based on consumer survey data on commute times per day gathered from a range of sources, including AAA, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the National Household Travel Survey. The total savings included estimates of personal savings on gas, broader savings due to reduced risk of accidents, and how individual households valued an hour of their time.

In 2018 the average commuter spent 54.2 minutes getting back and forth to work each day, or 4.6 hours a week, according to the Upwork report.

Survey respondents who were able to cut out their commute starting in mid-March and work from home saved nearly 50 minutes a day on average, or more than four days' worth of time over a roughly five-month period.

“The commute to work is extremely costly both to households and to society, and remote work has helped reduce that cost significantly,'' says Adam Ozimek, Upwork's chief economist.

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But as businesses ramp up in the wake of the pandemic's widespread shutdowns, many employers want workers back on-site because they believe it will boost productivity and profits.

Now, employers are grappling with a historic labor shortage as they try to match skill sets with open positions, and workers hold out for jobs that offer better pay and stronger benefits, and more flexibility.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million people - or 2.9% of the nation's labor force - quit their jobs in August, the highest ever reported by the BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey series.

Flexibility is the top reason workers are quitting, whether they want to work remotely or to have more relaxed start times, says Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement company.

Amtrak makes a station stop at Alexandria, Virginia, on Aug. 7, 2016.
Amtrak makes a station stop at Alexandria, Virginia, on Aug. 7, 2016.

“Companies that have tried to go back to 9 to 5, five days a week, really run into a resistant group of workers,'' says Challenger, adding that hesitation is strongest among working parents with young children who are dealing with unpredictable child care and school schedules. "There's definitely some pushback.''

While having a better work-life balance is the main goal for many workers who want less rigid work requirements, commuting is also a concern, Challenger says.

“I think certainly a huge swath of American workers got used to a life without a commute,'' Challenger says, "and a reversal of that feels really much more difficult than it did two years ago.''

'It's something I endure'

White lives just 23 miles from Manhattan. But when she commuted to work before the pandemic, it took at least one hour and 45 minutes, including the ten minutes spent wading through the crowds at Penn Station as she made her way to the street.

"I’ve been doing It for years and it’s taken hours of my life that I’m never going to get back,‘’ White says of her commute.

Evan Terwilliger, 31, a senior faculty support specialist at Harvard Business School, was looking for a new position last March. “Then the world turned upside down and like many folks, I sheltered-in-job,’’ he says.

Terwilliger was able to work remotely and leave behind his 30 to 45-minute rush-hour commute to Cambridge from his home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Now, he’s back on campus three days a week, and as he resumes his job search, being able to work remotely full time is a priority.

Evan Terwilliger says that he would like to work remotely full time when he finds a new job.
Evan Terwilliger says that he would like to work remotely full time when he finds a new job.

“It’s something I endure,’’ he said of his current drive back and forth to the university. "I feel more productive when I don’t have that commute. That commute zaps energy …It’s like you’re doing (another) job.’’

Benefits on the other side of the commute

Given the current competition for workers, employers may want to accommodate employees who ask to keep working remotely, or at the very least, allow them to work from home part of the week if it won't negatively impact the business, says Theresa Adams, senior HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management

If commuting is a particular concern, some workers’ schedules can be coordinated around traffic patterns, she says. For instance, they might come in on Monday and Friday, if that’s when traffic tends to be lighter.

“There is a major war for talent now so retaining employees is a major goal for employers,’’ Adams says.

The consulting firm PwC recently announced that its 40,000 client services workers, the majority of its staff, can choose to work remotely for good.

In addition to meeting the needs of current employees, such flexibility can make the company more appealing to prospective hires in a tight labor market, says Yolanda Seals-Coffield, PwC's deputy people leader.

"We knew the future of work was going to look different,'' she says, "so as we thought about coming out of the pandemic, and looking at what was going on in the job market, it became clear that people wanted choice.”

Commuting, however, wasn't a particular concern voiced by PwC's employees, she says. And she added that many staffers are eager to return to the office.

"A lot of our people are anxious to get back ... and are looking forward to collaborating with colleagues in person, so we expect many of our client service staff will be back on site,'' she says. "But we're also aware some people will want or need to remain virtual ... We'll see in the coming months how the numbers actually play out.''

Adams of SHRM agreed that employers may want to remind their staff of the benefits of being in the office.

"Certainly there are silver linings in being in person ... that people have possibly forgotten after working from home for so long,'' Adams says. "You get to develop personal relationships at work. You have face-to-face contact... and office parties. And all those things can be a motivator to return to the office.''

Challenger says there also appears to be a generational divide between workers who want to work remotely and those who want to be back on site.

"I’ve talked to workers that are in the later stage of their career, and there’s a real nostalgia for coming into the office and a nostalgia for the commute,'' he says, adding that some enjoy having time in the car or on public transportation to listen to music or read a book.

Terwilliger says he knows some people see their commute as a welcome way to shift in or out of work mode.

"For some folks having that commute benefits them,'' he says, "but I think a majority of folks looking for remote work in the future say, 'Nah. I can ... keep a separation between home and work and I don’t need a drive to do that.’’

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Workers say 'no' to commuting as offices reopen after COVID closures