Management & Controlling

Is It Simply Commuting or a Loss of Productivity?

What organizations can do to counteract the harmful effects of stressful commutes

Fabiola Gerpott - June 1, 2021

For employees, commuting is not only one of the least enjoyable activities of the workday, but also reduces their productivity at work, according to a recently published paper. But what are the underlying mechanisms, and what can employees and employers do to avoid this exhausting procedure?

As vaccinationrates increase, we are gradually returning to normality. Therefore, more and more companies expect their employees to return to the office a few days a week. As a result, employees will have to commute again, possibly facing obstacles such as delayed trains or traffic jams. The study “Stop and Go, Where is My Flow? How and When Daily Aversive Morning Commutes are Negatively Related to Employees’ Motivational States and Behavior at Work” shows that morning commutes can negatively impact productivity and thus reduce the state of flow at work. Stress on the way to work has even proven to prevent reaching highly motivating states of flow at work altogether. 

How commuting influences engagement and workflow

An international research team conducted two studies to delineate the effects of commuting on employee’s efficiency at work. The surveys were answered by workers who regularly commute to work by car, public transport, on foot, and by bicycle. For ten days, participants had to answer three surveys per day in which they were asked to rate aspects such as their commuting and flow experiences in the workplace.

Initially, we examined how adversely morning commutes affect an employee’s flow experience and work engagement.  We found that daily aversive morning commutes lead to lower levels of flow, which negatively affect employees’ work engagement. However, this negative correlation only applies when employees have an increased demand for impulse control at work, such as interacting with an unfriendly customer or colleague.

While the first study concentrated on the direct effects of aversive morning commutes, the second was concerned with understanding why these productivity dips can directly result from commuting. Researchers found that the additional effect of ego depletion is essential. A stressful commute depletes the ability to motivate oneself for strenuous tasks, making it harder to cope with a brutal workday afterward.

Organizations and commuters alike should try to mitigate the adverse effects of commuting

But there is no need to despair! There are several strategies to circumvent or at least lessen the adverse effects of commuting. Commuters should take a break before they start working. If commuters notice that they arrive stressed to work, socializing with a colleague or a short mindfulness exercises before starting to work help to cushion the negative effects. Furthermore, commuters should try to structure their work so depleted energy can be restored. For this purpose, it is particularly favorable to begin with a task that leads to quick success. Lastly, it is recommended for commuters to reduce work demands that further drain energy. Monotonous tasks should alternate with challenging ones, and reasonable deadlines should be set prior to starting a task.

However, companies can also support their employees in mitigating adverse commuting effects. One of the most effective measures is flexible schedule arrangements to make commutes less draining. Alternatively, companies can eliminate commuting altogether and continue to allow employees to work from home – in which case they must ensure sufficient social interaction. In addition, managers should be trained to recognize and meet employees' basic needs to make employees' work more beneficial, for example, by giving employees freedom in decision-making and task execution. Finally, organizations can structure processes so that employees are not constantly interrupted in their workflow.

Tips for practitioners
  • Do away with stress on the way to work: Reduce draining commutes by allowing flexible working arrangements. If this is not possible, offer employees flexible time arrangements to make their commute less draining.
  • As a leader, be sure to satisfy your employees’ fundamental needs by assigning work tasks which enhance their competencies and ensure that employees have autonomy in making decisions.
  • Implement clever work design: Create boundary conditions that help your employees maintain immersive flow experiences by preventing interruptions during work.
Literature references and methodology

To support their hypotheses, the researchers conducted two separate diary studies across ten workdays. In the first study, 53 participants were asked to answer three surveys a day. They were to describe their commuting experience and the degree to which they experienced a state of flow. To evaluate the level of work engagement, participants were then asked to rate how vigorous, dedicated, and absorbed they felt at work. In the second study, 91 employees took part in answering three surveys per day regarding the strength of their willpower. This way, the role of ego depletion as an additional mediator of the relation between aversive morning commutes and work effectiveness was tested. The second study replicated the hypothesized three-way interaction between commuting, essential daily competencies, and the need for satisfaction at work.

Author

Professor Dr. Fabiola Gerpott

Fabiola Gerpott is an expert in leadership, diversity management, and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more highly by managers and employees alike. She is also interested in the future of work and how leadership can contribute to a better working world 4.0.

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