Working from home saves employees 2 hours a week in commute time, and they’re spending it in ways CEOs don’t expect

January 24, 2023, 5:55 PM UTC
Working from home saved people roughly two hours a week in commute time, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Marco Bottigelli—Getty Images

Something is typically considered to be a cliché only after being a long established, entrenched truism. Like if you’re at the office Keurig machine and say to a coworker, “Man, traffic was hell this morning.” Innocuous pleasantries about traffic as a conversation piece is a cliché—but only because it’s also fact.

We spend a good deal of time commuting to work in the morning and back home when the clock hits five. In fact, a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that remote workers actually save 72 minutes a day on average by not commuting.

According to NBER, which drew on data from 27 countries, working from home saved people about two hours per week in 2021 and 2022 that they’d otherwise spend in the car or on public transit. And the researchers estimated that after the pandemic, as dust settles on what the future of work and the prevalence of the office will look like, it will save about one hour per week per worker.

What happens to that time saved? Well, people actually tend to spend it working. On average, of the time people save working from home, 40% goes to extra work on primary or secondary jobs.

How do you like them apples, James Gorman? (Also read, any number of vocal what-about-productivity-and-office-culture CEOs).

For the better part of a year, the corporate world has been at impassioned odds over the new age of remote work, working from home, flexibility, and returning to the office in a real way—the latter being a fight to re-cement the strength of corporate ideals.

James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, said last week in an interview with Bloomberg during the World Economic Forum in Davos that remote work is “not an employee choice.”

He echoed many of the same sentiments shared by CEOs of some of the biggest companies who say they worry working from home is taking a toll on productivity (though workers say they’re more productive) and company culture (though the idea that the office is the only way to establish culture is flawed).

Some CEOs, like Twitter and Tesla Elon Musk, have put their foot down and demanded employees return to offices, to varying degrees of success. They by and large believe remote workers to be lazy and—in case you haven’t yet heard—unproductive.

And of course, it’s not necessarily true that employees never want to be in the office.

That said, 34% of remote workers’ “commute” time is allocated to leisure, which NBER defined as activities such as reading, watching TV and movies, or exercise. And 11% of that time saved goes to caregiving activities.

The differences in how women spend that time and how men spend it are modest, according to NBER. Men tend to devote more time to work, but the difference is only 2.4 minutes. Men also devote about two more minutes to leisure. Women spend an extra 0.7 minutes of their time saved to caregiving when there are no children under 14 in the household, but that jumps to an extra 2.4 minutes when there are children under 14.

NBER also found that the daily time savings allocated to jobs, leisure, and caregiving all rise with educational attainment.

“Work from home and the associated drop in commuting also affect individuals and society through many other channels,” researchers Cevat Giray Aksoy, Steven J. Davis, Jose Maria Barrero, Mathias Dolls, Nicholas Bloom, and Pablo Zarate wrote in the working paper for NBER. “Work from home expands personal freedom, improves life quality, brings new employment opportunities, and builds social capital in residential communities.

“More work from home also means lighter loads on transport systems and, in particular, less congestion at peak travel times. The available evidence suggests that work from home reduces economy-wide energy consumption and pollution.”

Fact: Commuting really is hell.

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