I must qualify this — I worked from home a lot voluntarily before we were all forced to work from home a lot. However, occasionally I did go to the downtown office for meetings, lunches with colleagues, or just to get some separation from home. I was very productive on those days. Now I look back and think why that was the case and I realize that it was the commute that made me productive.
On average, Americans commute a little over 26 minutes one-way. Even in Seattle, where I live, the average commute times are 30 minutes if you drive, and 48 minutes if you take public transport. When I commuted, I would drive to my local train station, which is a mile away from home, park my car, get on the Sounder Train, get off the train at King Street Station in downtown after a 20-minute ride, then walk 20 minutes to the office, which is a mile away from the station. Then I would do the reverse in the evening. It took me 48 minutes — I’ve timed it. I was the most average public transport commuter per the local average.
We have been sequestered at home without our consent or choice because we don’t want to contract a deadly virus. I will refrain from commenting on those who ignore this directive because of their political views. However, I deeply empathize with those who feel desperate because their savings are running out and they simply must get back to work. Most of us are feeling such anxiety in varying degrees of intensity. Those of us who still have corporate jobs and have been able to transition to work-from-home relatively painlessly, can count ourselves as fortunate. Many of the same fortunate have made videos, intended to be funny, from their suburban homes, recounting their frustration of spending too much time with their families. Isn’t that what you wanted — freedom from the commute and work-life balance?
We all fantasize about things, people, incomes, fame, and status that we don’t have. And yet, if and when we find any of it, we want something else. Subconsciously we miss the simplicity of what we had, or rather didn’t, but we are not able to articulate that to ourselves because we have been indoctrinated into wanting more, being ambitious, and marching on. We complained about our commutes and wanted to work remotely so we could do our laundry and take care of our pets and kids — all while getting work done in our pajamas. Now we, the fortunate, have it, and yet life is infinitely worse. I miss my commute and I imagine many of you might do so as well. Why do I pine for what I supposedly hated?
Commutes were not fun at all. Sitting in crawling traffic, or standing in crowded train cars pressed against strangers with suspect hygiene, was stressful. However, commutes bookended our workdays and closed a door so we could then completely transition to family, dinner, our favorite TV show, a hobby, yoga etc. Now we are working from home, but so is everyone else in our companies and our clients’ or customers’ companies. Everyone is always available and always on so we must be as well. Who wants to be seen as less dedicated in these times of uncertainty? We don’t want to be seen as expendable and less valuable so we must do more, create “value”, or at least appear to be more useful as employees than our colleagues. We were doing all that earlier as well during our workdays but the commute put an end to the fretting and the manic-obsessive-email-chain-responding.
They say that boredom is the mother of invention, not necessity, which has long been erroneously awarded that parenthood. When we commute we day-dream, we fantasize, we talk to ourselves, some of us might pray as if someone’s actually listening. I mean to say that we subconsciously may be working out problems or actively thinking things through because we have the time to do so. We are mentally at rest till the commute is over so we let our minds wander during that period, although some of us don’t need a commute to do that. Wandering of the mind often leads to evaluating alternatives, which could lead to clarity of thought, and even a resolve to make things better for ourselves.
Some of us may have scenic commutes, as do I of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, and that can be highly meditative. Commuting and nature are mostly incongruous but some of us are fortunate to experience them together. Even if tenuous, any connection with nature is beneficial as it humbles us by putting in perspective the size of our problems when set against the size of this universe. It may sound new-agey coming from me but that’s what many psychologists opine as well, if that’s who you would rather believe.
Even if some of us carry our work with us and choose to work while we commute, it gives us uninterrupted time to either catch up on email, voicemail, chats, or to just plan what we may do the following day. There is a sense that this is a time to ourselves, which we don’t feel while we are in the office or even at home where our time may be sought by our families.
In the absence of this transition time, a time to ourselves, a separation, or a bookending device, we have to actively replace the commute with something physically different — whether it be taking a walk, spending time on the balcony or in a kitchen garden, exercising, meditation, dancing, or whatever takes our fancy. Working from home has taken away all sense of time, and the anxiety of being deemed redundant has led us to abandon partitioning of time, that we did unknowingly when we were commuting. We are suffering and we don’t seem to know why. Although public transport may most likely be avoided by most of us in the short-term but eventually we will want a little bit of that commute back in our lives even if remote work becomes acceptable and a long-term trend.
Remember open office? Yes, that work environment with no walls and an uninterrupted view of colleagues squinting into their screens — that may be out of favor for a while, but I bet we will miss it too and want some of it back eventually. It may then be in the name of culture and collaboration, but we have always said that about measures that were primarily put in place to save money and monitor workers.
We are never happy with what we have and we don’t appreciate it till it’s gone. That’s human suffering in a nutshell. So if you’re missing the commute you hated oh so much, don’t worry — you’ll get to hate it again when you get it back, but this time you will hate it just a little bit less than before because you will have gone to the other side and made it back. Then you will know that the grass on the other side was really crabgrass.