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Commute Concerns: Why Employers Should Take a Harder Look at Travel Times

Commute Concerns

By Chase Bourdelaise

While employee salaries are typically a company’s highest cost of doing business, the commute time of an organization’s workforce plays a critical role in the employee satisfaction and turnover. For example, how would an extra 10 minutes in daily commute impact an employee’s life? It seems like a small increase, but it has a much wider ripple effect.

At 7 a.m., an employee is rushing out the door after a hectic morning getting the kids fed and dressed for school. Traffic in the city backs up quickly, and with the extra 10 minutes, a mere 20-minute delay leaving the house means double the commute time after dropping off the kids. The longer commute makes it easier to have the kids take the bus home from school and wait until traffic dies down, but that means staying longer at the office. At this rate, getting home before dinner can be tough, and making time to use a gym membership is out of the question. Every extra minute that can be carved out in the evening is spent with family, but it’s still not long before the kids head to bed and it all starts over tomorrow.

This daily repeated action is really 10 minutes, twice a day, every business day. With an average of 21 working days a month, that equates to an extra 420 minutes of commute time per month – nearly a full workday. Or, 84 hours a year. That’s seven days’ worth of commuting (when using a 12-hour wake time per day).

To put it into perspective, over the course of one year, an increase of 10 minutes of commute time adds up to almost a full week of personal, productive, or family time. 

It’s no surprise, then, why long commute times can have a negative impact on employee satisfaction and vice versa. A recent study from Harvard Business School found individuals who value time over money are happier with their lives and careers, with more time to pursue activities they enjoy. Another survey reported 80% of employees feel they do not have enough time to do all the things they want each day, with a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed. Said a different way, people would rather be unemployed than not have enough time to do the things they enjoy.

Long commutes can contribute to dissatisfaction in several ways:

  • Less time with family
  • Driving stress
  • Risk of accidents
  • Costs for gas, maintenance, insurance, parking, transit
  • Increased fast food consumption
  • Increased sedentary time and inactivity
  • Higher carbon footprint and pollution

In fact, an analysis on New York City commuters found that adults with a commute time greater than one hour were more obese and exercised less. While a longer commute does not directly cause obesity, it can be a contributing factor. Employers should consider how this impacts their insurance/business costs as obesity is linked to employees being absent from work and decreased productivity while at work, as well as diabetes and heart conditions.

Employee Commute Experience Impacts Site Selection

When considering a relocation, businesses should examine how the location changes their employees commute. The insight collected on workforce commute times are applicable to other areas of business management, including talent sourcing strategies and potential for office consolidation. It also drives a more confident and informed location decision process, promotes more effective change management planning, mitigates risk, and reduces uncertainty. In addition to how existing employees travel to work and the impact a relocation may have, the ability for a location to capture target labor pools within a reasonable commute from the office is critical.

If these factors are not taken into consideration, employers can face unexpected challenges related to:

  • Turnover of key personnel
  • Recruiting target demographics and workers
  • Parking availability
  • Employee engagement and commitment
  • Employee productivity
  • Training requirements
  • Remote work options
  • Alternate work site availability

Companies should also consider employee commutes between office locations or training facilities. For instance, a client found its Brooklyn-based employees lost a combined total of 20,000 hours when traveling from home to the office and then to training. After optimizing travel time for employees, we found relocating the training facility added back 12 workdays of productivity per employee. 

Rethinking Commute Times with Flexible Workspace

Generally, satisfied employees are more willing to travel farther for work. How engaged an employee is in their work – and their commitment to the organization – tends to align with observations about other elements of their job, including salary, benefits, workspace, and office location. As work/life balance becomes an increasingly important issue, a growing number of organizations are exploring ways to reduce the negative impacts of commuting.

One approach is to increase flexibility of work locations, allowing employees to work from home some days of the week or at a flexible workspace closer to home. With a structured rotation, companies can implement desk sharing, where certain groups of employees work from home on alternating days, allowing those workstations to be used by employee groups on days they are in the office. While these options present potential benefits of reducing overall real estate footprint, these policies more importantly address factors related to turnover risk, employee satisfaction and engagement.

Before implementing policies, businesses should first understand how employees travel to work. While working remotely continues to be a trend, there are unattested benefits to having employees physically in the office for increased productivity, innovation, and employee interaction. In some cases, commute analytics may offer guidance that supports relocating an office location as the optimal solution to combat high turnover and diminished engagement.

With the war for talent across key areas of the United States, companies should engage a strategic partner to help them study how their real estate decisions impact their employees. This step will help ensure a more productive and engaged workforce and help ensure a smooth transition to a new space.


Chase Bourdelaise is Managing Director for Transwestern’s Consulting Services, which helps organizations make strategic data-driven real estate decisions across North America.

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