Monday, October 3, 2022
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Is commuting to work always a waste of time?

Aamericans are “always in a hurry,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” his work published in 1835. Until the covid-19 pandemic, nowhere was this more evident in recent decades than on packed trains at rush hour while people commute to work.

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Nearly 75% of professionals in the United States say that travel is the thing they fear most about going back to the office. Working remotely a few days a week is here to stay. Rush-hour traffic, crowded trains and transport strikes (such as the one on the London Underground last week) made the case for working from home. Across the United States and Europe, rising fees are eating into people’s wages. The clamor for lower carbon emissions adds additional weight to the argument that millions of employees are not taking unnecessary travel. In some emerging cities, getting to work involves honking horns and epic traffic jams, as well as accidents.

From time to time, most people will have to make the trip to and from the office. Whether walking, cycling, on a Vespa, taking the bus, the tram or the metro, the range of options is wide and rich in textures and colours. Some people will insist that no trip is worth it. However, with the right attitude, it doesn’t have to feel like temporary brain damage. This guest Bartleby, who takes the subway to The EconomistThe London office three times a week finds it useful and oddly satisfying.

How useful and satisfying it will depend on exactly what your commute to work is like. But unless you get in your car in the driveway and get out in your company parking lot, it will involve at least some physical activity. Whether you’re biking, or just picking up the pace to catch the bus or train, combine being outdoors with an element of wrestling, a good amount of which can be invigorating, not exhausting. And if you don’t get it, don’t worry. Your hours have almost certainly become more flexible than the old routine of nine to five. Regardless, that next train may be less like a cattle car.

Like all dislocations, even regular and predictable ones, the daily commute is also a time and place where you are more exposed to physical and psychological elements than you are protected from at home or at work. In “Falling in Love,” a film released in 1984, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro meet while riding the same train month after month from the suburbs to New York City, until one day they embark on a emotional relationship. The plot is banal and the dialogue dark, but the idea that a journey injects a sense of risk and possibility is deep and real.

Public transport, which involves a lot of commuting, remains the most democratic way of going to work. As chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, Paul Volcker traveled economy class on the ferry from New York to Washington, DC, and took the bus in both cities. As a public servant who embodied civic duty, the central banker was known for his financial discipline in personal matters as well as in monetary policy. At a time when greed was good and limousines, helicopters and private jets were great, the frugality of the “custodian of the nation’s money” sent a strong message. As companies bracing for a recession tighten their belts, Volcker’s example seems particularly relevant.

Perhaps most important of all in an age of remote work, travel helps mark the mental distance between home and office that disappears when the kitchen table becomes your workstation. It offers a useful buffer, a liminal space that separates the personal and the professional.

Getting ready to go to work in the morning involves an element of planning, sometimes even anticipation. Leaving your home and comfort zone, you feel more alive by default. Walking towards the train station, the purpose is externalized and compressed. In the evening, you can use that time as a curtain to separate the day from the rest of the night, plumbing those parts of your inner life that bother you, and still feel connected to the world. Bartleby lets his thoughts wander while he is on the move. Time lost is time gained.

Few people enjoy locking themselves in one place forever. Working remotely from an isolated town in Italy might sound like a treat for a while. However, like all equality, it soon begins to feel suffocating. In a modern world where de Tocqueville’s words ring true for everyone everywhere, it might seem strange to turn up the rush. But not if you think of the journey as scoring in the biggest story.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
When to trust your instincts as a manager (Aug 18)
Why employees want to work in reviled industries (Aug 13)
Why It’s Okay to Not Be Perfect at Work (July 28)

For more expert analysis of the biggest stories in economics, business and markets, sign up for Money Talks, our weekly newsletter.

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