You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.
It’s an undisputed fact that there are 24 hours in a day, and for most they’re neatly divided into three parts; eight hours for work, then rest, and play.
Except, very few people actually work for eight hours and the demands of work under capitalism mean the time reserved for work encroaches upon our rest and leisure time.
Before home working became ubiquitous, most of us clocked up hours and hours traveling to and from our place of employment. These journeys weren’t just because we have a penchant for packed trains and traffic jams – our employers required us to be in the workplace.
But travel isn’t cheap. Depending on your journey, it can costs hundreds of pounds monthly to make those trips. And not only that, it takes up the very little precious time we have.
In 2019, the average amount of time people in London spent commuting on a weekday each way was 47 minutes, according to public transport website Moovit. But almost half (48%) of riders spend more than two hours on public transport every day. For the North East and Cumbria, the average time spent is 64 minutes.
For three years, I worked 9-hour contracted shifts (sometimes stretching longer), including Sundays, and commuted for two hours a day. Some of these shifts started as early as 7am, taking my wake-up alarm to 5am.
When you take away work hours, commute, sleep, and mundane necessities such as eating, cleaning, grooming, a mere hour or two is left for leisure.
Which is why working from home has been such sweet relief. But as the pandemic becomes a normal fixture in our lives and we head back into physical work spaces, it could be time to reframe the old system.
The incentives to go back to the office, currently, are lacking. Not only could there be potential health risks, but people have been able to cherish time and money sans commute.
In fact, Totaljobs predicts the average Londoner could save £14,309 in commuting costs over the course of a career should 2020 working trends continue in the long run.
But alas, rented office spaces beckon. So business owners hoping to get more bums in seats ought to consider incentivising the trip – and it’s mutually beneficial.
Will Stronge, director of research at economics think tank Autonomy, says that commuting is a task that, much like other work responsibilities, which should be compensated.
“We need to define what commuting really is. I think that conversation doesn’t really happen that much as it’s taken for granted that we as working people have to pay for the commute to go to work, because obviously it’s in our benefit that we go to work and earn an income,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“But of course, commuting massively benefits employers as well because without the workforce, they wouldn’t have a business.”
Stronge argues that employers are “getting a bit of a free ride” in the current system, because employees shoulder commuting costs which also benefit employers.
“Commuting is not free time, but an expensive activity that people are forced to do in order to turn up for their employers,” he says.
“As in other parts of the world, there is a strong argument that employers should pay their fair share and compensate for the time and rip-off costs associated with the daily commute to work.”
So how would it work logistically? Well, it’s up to employer discretion but there are several models.
One could be reimbursing people for their travel costs, or providing half of the total expenditure. Or, there could be a means-tested stipend, so more is offered to those who have to make a longer journey than those who live in relative proximity.
It could look like offering a bicycle scheme, allowing people to cycle into work which has the added benefit of a health boost. And if there are those who flat-out refuse to come back to the space, then remote working should still be an option.
At the very least, if employers are not willing to offer any compensation or relief, then they could offer flexible hours, allowing some to pay less for off-peak journeys.
It might seem unfathomable, but it’s the norm in places such as Slovenia, Brazil, Japan and Belgium where in the former all the costs are covered and in the latter, 75%. And in the US, media company Bloomberg offered its 20,000 employees a $75 (£54) commuting allowance, giving staff the choice how to spend it.
“The key point here is that even if there is resistance, we don’t think it’s ethically correct for the people to pay, given the benefits that employees get from having commuting paid for by the workforce to come to the office,” adds Stronge. “And of course, there’ll be resistance, but there’s resistance in everything.”
The rising cost of living is also undeniably affecting people’s incomes right now due to inflation, compounded with stagnated wages. Is it really in their interest to pay for this added cost?
But where’s all the money going to come from if employers start coughing up?
It’s up to the employer ultimately, says Strong. If they’ve procured genuine losses during the pandemic, cost-saving measures could look like downsizing the office space and allowing workers to work from home. “And some employers in the private sector made a load of money during the pandemic,” he points out.
“The argument is not that this is taking something away from employees. It’s basically saying there was an unequal balance of who’s paying for commuting, we’re just redressing that. And there are a number of ways in which you might want to get around that.”
And in the long run, happy employees can mean better staff retention as hiring and training new staff is a cost-heavy and lengthy exercise.
As ideal as all that sounds, unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s about to become a reality any time soon.
Greg Burgess, partner at law firm DMH Stallard and employment law expert, said he hasn’t seen any evidence of employers paying commuting costs as the UK returns to the workplace.
“Most employers have implemented (or are in the process of implementing) hybrid working policies. Typically, this will require office attendance on a minimum two or three days a week,” he says.
“Whilst employers could agree to cover commuting costs, that is an extra direct cost which they would not have picked up pre-pandemic, so they will not want to start doing so now.”
The logistics of a paid commute can be complicated, he adds, and businesses are likely to be reluctant to figure it out.
“Employers are rightly looking to be as flexible as possible as the battle for talent remains fierce in many sectors of the economy,” he says. “New recruits could be incentivised to join with generous perks such as their commuting costs being covered. If that happens the employer will almost certainly want to offer it to all staff, which could make it financially unviable.”
It might feel odd, greedy even, to ask our managers for help with something that was an assumed given. We didn’t think a four-day work week could come into fruition either, but for the first time, we have more than 33 UK firms signing up to a trial.
Large companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Slack have now gone completely remote. Monzo offers three months paid leave to employees.
These measures are reflective of the needs of our milieu and were unfathomable some years ago. The pandemic has changed how we feel about work. It’s time to start considering what else it could change, and how work could be transformed to work us.
Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.