How Employees Spent Their Commute Time during COVID-19

by Irina Balashova, CPA, CFE, CIA, and Marion Wickersham, CFE | Aug 31, 2021


When COVID-19 hit, an expansion of telecommuting in the workforce was already a growing trend. According to the National Study of Employers,1 by 2016 more than 66% of employers already allowed employees to work some regular paid hours at home at least on an occasional basis, and 40% allowed such work on a regular basis. By spring 2020, work-from-home accounted for 52.3% of all employment,2 a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 statistics. Working from home freed 62.4 million hours per workday for all U.S. workers that had been consumed by commuting. The question is, how was that time spent and what purposes did it serve?

The more that is known about the ways workers spent their unused commute time during work-from-home mandates, the better managers can decide on the future of remote work and commuting.

How these gained hours were used differs according to occupation and social group. Overall, though, workers spent more time doing personal activities in the morning or opted to set their alarm clocks a little later.

Research published in Harvard Business Review,3 however, showed that those with managerial responsibilities spent the extra time doing additional work. The assumption had been that commuting only detracted from personal leisure or family time, but the length of the workday for managers – which was determined as the total time from the start of the first work activity to the end of the last one – actually increased by 50 minutes, suggesting that managers have worked longer hours. They were able to recoup only 23 minutes per day of personal time; this is a noticeable difference from nonmanagers, who gained more than an hour.

Another study reveals that many employees have increased the time they spend working as a result of working from home. SHRM reports4 that by the end of 2020 about 70% of workers who worked from home as a result of the pandemic reported they started working on the weekends; 45% worked more hours during the normal work week. Essentially, the daily commute had served as a buffer between home and work, signaling that the workday was over and it was time to switch to family and personal activities. When the “office” is always within arm’s reach, however, it is much more difficult to separate home from work. And the more managerial responsibilities an employee has, the harder it is to “turn off” at the end of the day. A workday that spills over into one’s personal life can lead to depression or feelings of anger and anxiety.5

Commutes serve as important “me time.” Having the time to mentally unwind from work was lost when the commute went away. Being able to mentally prepare for work or decompress on the drive home may have unknowingly been taken for granted by many. The gap time between finishing work and being at home with family is crucial for reducing stress and fatigue. Commuting is “free” time. During a commute, many reconnect with friends, organize their thoughts or calendars, or simply listen to music.

Unused commute time has also been redirected to childcare. Parents gained more time to spend with their children, broadly viewed as a positive. At the same time, with school and day care closures and a shift to remote learning formats, parents had to simultaneously fill the dual roles of employee and parent. About half of employed parents working remotely say that they have at least some childcare responsibilities when working from home; six in 10 say that it has been difficult to get work done without interruptions since the pandemic began.6 This struggle to instantaneously switch gears from work to family without a break increases the risk of emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Nevertheless, by not commuting, workers gained flexibility related to household activities. The ability to tend to small tasks around the house goes a long way and is valued a lot. Also, waiting for deliveries or running errands can be seamlessly incorporated into the workday. Over 80% of workers do not want to go back to the office full-time,7 fearing a loss of that flexibility. This represents a significant demand to maintain at least some remote work opportunities.

The Harvard Business School study suggests that much value is seen at the intersection of the two worlds of in-person and remote work, as over 60% of workers favor hybrid schedule arrangements.8 Flexibility and developing an individual approach seems to be the optimal strategy in dealing with commute time. Finding a way to maintain a good work-life balance while also creating clear boundaries – such as implementing a manageable routine – can go a long way in reducing stress, fatigue, and eventual burnout. 

1 www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/Documents/National%20Study%20of%20Employers.pdf

2 https://voxeu.org/article/how-americans-use-time-saved-working-home

3 https://hbr.org/2020/12/where-did-the-commute-time-go

4 www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/remote-employees-are-working-longer-than-before.aspx

5 www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/americans-are-burned-out-working-from-home-heres-how-to-cope.html

6 www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/26/a-rising-share-of-working-parents-in-the-u-s-say-its-been-difficult-to-handle-child-care-during-the-pandemic

7 https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/03/survey-reveals-what-worked-about-online-work

8 www.cnet.com/health/over-80-of-workers-dont-want-to-go-back-to-the-office-full-time-survey-finds


Irina Balashova, CPA, CFE, CIA, is a senior associate with Forensic Resolutions Inc. in Westmont, N.J., and Philadelphia. She can be reached at ibalashova@forensicresolutions.com.

Marion Wickersham, CFE, is a senior associate with Forensic Resolutions Inc. She can be reached at mwickersham@forensicresolutions.com.

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