Returning to the office? Here’s how to make the most of your commute

Woman-wearing-mask-in-Melbourne commute

Melbourne CBD. Source: AAP/James Ross.

As restrictions ease in Sydney and Melbourne, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. But for some, there’s one resumption looming that brings near-universal dread: the commute.

The memories of bus cancellations, raging drivers or being sardined with sweaty strangers are still raw. And now you’ve experienced the alternative: sleeping in an extra hour, fitting in a yoga class, or enjoying breakfast with your family. In comparison, a commute can feel like an inevitable waste of time. 

But here’s the good news: with a little forethought and planning, you may be able to hold onto some of the benefits of your remote commute-alternative.

The pros and cons of commuting

If you’re looking to validate your dread, there are stats for that. Long commutes increase your chance of resignation, divorce and mental health decline. Commuting costs the average city-dwelling Australian 67 minutes per day and $49-$57 per day of foregone earnings. 

But studies have also found upsides to commuting. As part of our regular routine, they provide structure to our days, a shared experience to connect with colleagues, and a clear transition between our work and home lives. In fact, some people missed these benefits so much that they created a “virtual commute” while working from home. Microsoft even developed a virtual commute feature in Outlook and Teams to facilitate it. 

So how do you create a net-positive experience at either end of your workday?

Do you need to commute?

This is, of course, the first question to ask.  Do you need to commute every day, or at all? Plenty of people aren’t satisfied with the answer, with commutes being a factor in the great resignation. But before you (or your staff) move on, it’s worth discussing as a company what’s realistic. Now is the perfect time to gather some data on how your remote time is being spent.

Perhaps you do need to commute, but there’s a better time to do it. With more businesses embracing the benefits of asynchronous communication, traditional business hours are less relevant. Shifting your commute earlier could save time and stress, and help you get home in time for dinner. 

What does a commute replace?

Be realistic about the length of your commute, and what that time is exchanged with while working from home. 

More work

Many of us just worked longer days during lockdown. If that was intentional, there are options to replicate it during your commute:

  • Book a meeting during your drive time; 
  • Bring your laptop on the bus to get ahead for the day;
  • Call it ‘think time’, and work through a problem or develop a new idea; and 
  • Connect to your professional network with a career update to an old manager or a thank you email to a teammate. 

But perhaps your work-for-commute exchange wasn’t intentional. In this case, your commute is an opportunity. Now is a great time to think about all your options for that time and approach it with new-found intent.

Exercise

It’s easier to get up for a morning run at 7 am than 6 am, and sleep is too important to sacrifice. For many of us, it’s better to be kind to yourself and look for other exercise times.

Could you commute by foot, bike, or e-bike? Perhaps just one leg of the journey, or a few times a week is feasible? 

What about in the afternoon? Research shows exercise during your workday can boost your mood, stress resilience and work performance. In that context, you’re doing your team a favour. Choose your activity right, and you can even get away without a shower.

Family time

More time with our closest family members has been a tangible pandemic silver lining, and one to hold onto wherever possible. If you’ll be exchanging family time for a commute, think of ways to recreate that experience: 

  • Can you tune into the family breakfast virtually, with a voice or video call?;
  • Try exchanging notes or video messages (you can prepare them ahead); and 
  • Spend your commute organising photo albums or editing video clips to connect to their subjects. You’ll also be making those memories more accessible for future enjoyment.

Me time

Perhaps you were swapping commute time for fulfilling time for yourself. A commute could facilitate that too.

  • What can you learn? As well as podcasts and audio books, short regular trips are a great opportunity for brain training, learning a language or taking a course. Think of the progress you’ll make after a whole year of commuting;
  • How can you unwind? Create a playlist for busy days, stressful days and rainy days. Follow a guided mediation, journal, or reflect on your goals; and
  • Practice a hobby, like knitting, digital design or fiction writing.

Household tasks

Perhaps its home management that gets deprioritised when a commute is added to your day. Your commute can be a great time to get these out of the way and allow you to be present when you arrive home.

  • Plan your meals for the coming week and place that online grocery order;
  • List out your maintenance tasks and ring around for quotes; and
  • Take tasks off your plate completely by delegating to the kids, a cleaning company, or meal prep service.

Mix, match and prep

This isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. Keep in mind that you might want something different on different trips. Perhaps save a copy of this article for when you need fresh ideas.

Actually executing your re-imagined commute is all about preparation. Test out that bike route. Research your listening options. Download what you need offline. Set up your call list. Charge your laptop. And perhaps you’ll be surprised how your commute may be time well spent.

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