A journey from work to home is about more than just getting there – the psychological benefits of commuting that remote work doesn't provide
Published in News & Features
For most American workers who commute, the trip to and from the office takes nearly one full hour a day – 26 minutes each way on average, with 7.7% of workers spending two hours or more on the road.
Many people think of commuting as a chore and a waste of time. However, during the remote work surge resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, several journalists curiously noted that people were – could it be? – missing their commutes. One woman told The Washington Post that even though she was working from home, she regularly sat in her car in the driveway at the end of the workday in an attempt to carve out some personal time and mark the transition from work to nonwork roles.
As management scholars who study the interface between peoples’ work and personal lives, we sought to understand what it was that people missed when their commutes suddenly disappeared.
In our recently published conceptual study, we argue that commutes are a source of “liminal space” – a time free of both home and work roles that provides an opportunity to recover from work and mentally switch gears to home.
During the shift to remote work, many people lost this built-in support for these important daily processes. Without the ability to mentally shift gears, people experience role blurring, which can lead to stress. Without mentally disengaging from work, people can experience burnout.
We believe the loss of this space helps explain why many people missed their commutes.
In our study, we wanted to learn whether the commute provides that time and space, and what the effects are when it becomes unavailable.
We reviewed research on commuting, role transitions and work recovery to develop a model of a typical American worker’s commute liminal space. We focused our research on two cognitive processes: psychological detachment from the work role – mentally disengaging from the demands of work – and psychological recovery from work – rebuilding stores of mental energy used up during work.
Based on our review, we developed a model which shows that the liminal space created in the commute created opportunities for detachment and recovery.
However, we also found that day-to-day variations may affect whether this liminal space is accessible for detachment and recovery. For instance, train commuters must devote attention to selecting their route, monitoring arrivals or departures and ensuring they get off at the right stop, whereas car commuters must devote consistent attention to driving.