It’s 8 am on a Monday morning and I see the next BART* train approaching. I didn’t manage to get there by 7:30 am as I had hoped to beat the rush, so I run towards the end of the platform hoping the last car of the train will be least crowded. The door opens and I see the swarm of people. The little glimpse of hope I had to find a seat quickly disappeared. I see a small space in the corner and make my way through the crowd, put on my headphones, and start counting down the minutes until I will be out of this train full of people sweating and coughing. The train stops unexpectedly; the operator apologizes for the delay and notes that there’s a medical emergency. Of course, it’s Monday morning and Mondays bring on more heart attacks.
Often seen as a personal choice and minor inconvenience employees should simply get on with, commuting is a growing health concern that companies can address as part of creating a healthy work ecosystem.
How bad is the commuter problem?
San Francisco commute times are among the worst in the U.S. with an average of 52.9 minutes. Let’s say it takes an employee one hour to get into the office. That’s 2 hours a day for 5 days a week, which is 40 hours a month commuting. This roughly equates to an entire additional week of work that can be utilized for productivity.
Employees are drained by their long and stressful commutes and it’s a growing problem that is impacting their health, personal time and attitude towards work. Commuting can even make a noticeable increase in one’s blood pressure, contribute to more sick days, and negatively impact eating habits and physical activity.
Employee transit quick wins
The Bay Area companies that have their offices located in close proximity to major transport hubs and free shuttle-bus service available to employees can often see an increased attraction and retention of employees. However, the number of office spaces available by train stations is extremely limited, and what if your company simply cannot afford to have its own shuttle service?
As people in San Francisco move away from owning and driving their own cars, services like Chariot (a private transportation company, now owned by Ford) as well as ride-sharing, and bicycle- and electric scooter-sharing programs are becoming a norm. Yet, they only partly contribute to solving the commute problem. Is there anything employers can do?
Thinking beyond offering another wellness program
Employers are strategizing how they can implement comprehensive wellness programs to get their employees to be healthy and mitigate health risks, however, they often overlook employees’ major day-to-day stressor in these strategies: the commute. While offering Employee Assistance Programs and digital wellness solutions and rewarding people with wellness credits can help improve components of employee wellness, addressing the commuter problem requires setting policies and re-shaping company initiatives to give employees the flexibility to have more time in their day, or simply have a less stressful day.
Embracing the gig economy and accepting workplace changes
As the labor market trends towards freelanced and contracted work, or “the gig economy,” employees are less willing to deal with long commute times and a job where they need to be present in the office every day. They might be hired by another agency or company that allows them more flexibility, and to them, that might be worth even a pay cut. However, as a tradeoff, individuals who participate in the gig economy lose out on benefit plans and participating in equity.
Introducing more flexibility around the hours that employees need to be spending on-site and exploring off-site work can be a scary thought for companies but it can pay off in the longer term. Not only flexible working can cater to different groups of your employees but also help you improve your operational costs (by not chasing the perfect office spaces that may not be used by employees).
You don’t need to solve the problem, but consider steps toward making it better.
There may not be an ultimate solution to the commuter problem, but employers need to think creatively while considering costs, productivity, and the company culture as they make any changes. With more emphasis on employee experience and financial returns driven from employee satisfaction, you can start driving the transformation in the space.
STEP 1: Mitigate the problem
Encourage remote work. Working from home is becoming more acceptable and encouraged, although employers are struggling to find the balance for having employees present at work to build the culture of the workplace and giving employees their flexibility to be remote. Even physicians are starting to work remotely with telemedicine services and seeing patients virtually. Some companies, like Atlassian and Lightbend, are creating workforces that is mostly remote.
Give commute subsidies and carpooling options, so that employees don’t feel like they are spending excessive amounts on their commute.
Consider technology to make the commute more bearable. Companies in the Bay Area have buses with WiFi and music dedicated to employees to enhance the commute and ensure employees can work on the commute. Some have even suggested using self-driving cars as a means to make the employee commute more of a positive experience. Employees are also receiving access to “predictive journey planning” apps to know when there are delays and receive suggestions on how to make the best use of their time in the area.
STEP 2: Change your work practices
Offer a designated time in the office. Some companies are having specified hours in the day (i.e. 10 am to 2 pm) when employees are required to be present in the office. Or, companies coordinate in-person meetings for one day a week so everyone can arrange to be in the office for important meetings. This not only helps with commuting stress, it also encourages the more efficient use of meeting time. Otherwise, the remainder of the working hours is up to the employees.
Develop multiple office locations instead of focusing on a central office headquarter.
Build company-wide online communities and video conferencing as a way to help employees communicate and feel part of a company’s collaborative culture when outside the office.
STEP 3: Make it work for your specific population.
Take a look at your employee demographics and build your commuter benefit offerings based on what the employees will need (i.e. think of the number of younger employees, working mothers, elderly).
Employers play a big role
Working 8 hours a day (or more) and sleeping (if we’re lucky) 8 hours a day leaves us with 8 hours of “life” per day, and of this “lifetime”, sometimes 2 of those hours are spent on commuting. Addressing the commuter problem and making changes to your policies is part of valuing and improving your employees’ health and well-being. So think ahead and start driving the positive change now, on the way to healthier and more engaged workforce.
*BART is the Bay Area Rapid Transportation, the most common public transportation system in the Bay Area.
About the author:
Tabya Sultan is a Consultant at Nua Group, a San Francisco-based human resource advisory firm specializing in total rewards, and is particularly interested in employee wellbeing strategies and global health. Tabya is always excited about planning her next trip to a new part of the world.