By: Niki Fuchs, Manager– Director, Office Space in Town (OSiT)
Almost every commuter will at some point have dozed off on the way home – perhaps even on the way into work– and, as if by magic, woken up just as the train pulls into their station. This is a microcosm of the routine, familiarity and comfort of the commute that forms such an important part of many people’s lives; a bonus for all those working in central London. The commute provides a subconscious build-up to the day – a time to think and read-in – and an ideal time to unwind after work. It’s only when this experience is taken away that its value becomes manifest.
For many, this is also an important boundary in their life separating the professional from the personal that was lost during lockdown home working. In fact, it’s little surprise that, in OSiT’s recent survey into the wellbeing impacts of home working, more than a third (38%) of respondents said they were struggling to unplug at home – raising serious concerns of burnout.
So, yes, commuting is time well spent.
Boundaries and routine
Pre-Covid, around four million people used the London Underground each day. Of course, many more used overground rail and buses for their commute. In a testament to its importance to our daily routines, lockdown gave rise to a movement of “faux commuters” – workers taking time out of their day to recreate a commute to their home working set up.
The reality is that getting into the rhythm of routine has an extremely positive impact on our mental health, providing clockwork predictability that makes us less vulnerable to anxiety and self-doubt. There’s a reason why rituals have long been the building blocks of our lives, from the commute to “bedtime” and everything in between.
With offices now opening up, the usage of public transport is to an extent returning closer to normality as people become more confident in their safety and recognise the benefits and boundaries that a day in the office can provide. As the country and London emerge from the lockdown, passenger use of the tube is now up to around one million a day, a number disproportionately lopsided towards peak-time commuters.
Although eight out of ten commuters are heading into the office on a weekly basis, it’s clear – and perhaps natural – that Tuesday to Thursday are the most likely to be office days, with businesses rightly demanding far greater flexibility from their office space as a result. And as old habits return, so those coffee bars by station exits have reopened and a level of normality has resumed.
Return to work and to commuting helps wellbeing
Without the separation of the commute, 50% of respondents to OSiT’s latest survey reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted by home working. But not only does this return to normality help commuters’ mental wellbeing– and, by extension, their performance at work – it benefits their physical health, too. Pre-Covid, 42% of London commuters had on average 20 minutes of “active travel” per day. Active travel is essentially cycling or walking – typically between station and office or home – and is something that can help lift commuters’ step counts into the healthy zone (above 8,000 a day).
In contrast, home working has led to far more sedentary routines, the “new commute” being no more than going to the end of the kitchen table or sitting, as it has been for so many young workers, at the end of their bed. Further, with people who completed any work from home also doing six hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, time spent decompressing and recovering from work – whether during the commute, hobbies or exercise – has simply been replaced with extended working hours.
Reclaiming the commute
Think of those great commuter walks: Waterloo Bridge, Hungerford Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge… any bridge… along with across Hyde Park to Paddington or along the Embankment or through Covent Garden to Leicester Square. All much missed. While home working has made development and networking much harder for junior colleagues, there is commonality in commuting. It unites you and your colleagues, even those much more junior or senior than you.
With all of that, it’s completely understandable that recent research from OSiT shows that working from home has left roughly 1 in 3 of us suffering from loneliness during lockdown. It’s unsurprising that only 5% of workers want to work remotely full-time on a permanent basis. Put simply: work strategies need to offer adequate office provision to prevent talent looking elsewhere for work. Getting the office open and keeping it open is good for business.
So, rather than leaving colleagues isolated and de-motivated at home, it’s time for businesses to reclaim the commute – and to be proud of doing so.