Even if remote work becomes the new norm, we might still need to create ‘commute time’.
Many employees have enjoyed the delights of a 30-second commute over the last few months. Instead of trudging between train platforms and bus stations, or slowly edging to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic, they jump out of bed, into the shower, drop into the kitchen for a caffeine hit and are at their desks with plenty of time before the work day begins.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate the death of the commute. It can actually play a hugely important role in our lives. And if traditional commutes are no longer an option, we might need to think about how to recreate it in different ways.
What’s the ‘third space’?
To understand the importance the commute can have, it’s worth looking at what peak performance researcher Adam Fraser calls ‘the third space‘. This is the time between any two different tasks. So it can be the commute, the time between putting down one project and picking up another, or the time between tasks of the same nature (the moments between calls for salespeople, for example). Indeed, Fraser even researched how elite tennis players make use of the time between serves, so the third space can be as short as that.
The act of zoning out to music on the bus, walking to/from your workplace or taking a detour via the gym allows you to “mentally show up” to your next tasks – be that in the boardroom or around the dinner table.
Fraser developed this concept over seven years of research and came to the conclusion that effectively utilising third space time makes us more resilient, adaptable and able to perform better in both our work and personal lives.
Of particular interest is a study he conducted in conjunction with Deakin University. He asked people to do three specific behaviours within the third space between work and home (that could be your commute, but Fraser doesn’t specify) – reflect, rest and reset. After a month, Fraser and the research team saw a 41 per cent improvement rate in positive behaviour in the home.
“Improving your relationships is about how you transition between work and home,” he said in a video explaining the concept. “In my consulting work with organisations, I’ve found that the third space helps salespeople get over rejection and transition into the next call or appointment with enthusiasm and optimism.
“Leaders used it to get over a difficult meeting and show up to the next one baggage free and focused. HR professionals used it to move effectively between a termination [meeting] and a performance review.”
When it comes to happiness, performance and balance, he says, it’s not only our tasks, but also what we do between tasks that really matters.
AHRI’s short course Mindfulness – mental health at work will provide valuable insights for leaders who want to create a mentally healthy workforce.
In this light, the danger with having no commute at all is people won’t have that in-between time.
Employees would do well to carve out ‘third space’ time for their brains to reflect and recalibrate regardless of whether they are working remotely or in the workplace, and managers should be encouraging of this.
Fake your commute
Of course, you don’t have to actively engage in the above three pillars to see a benefit from the commute. Disconnecting completely can be very helpful. Allowing our minds to wander is an important part of the problem-solving process, says professor Rebecca Mitchell of Macquarie University.
“We don’t let ourselves go into that mindless drift anymore and that is really important… for sparking unexpected creative moments,” she said in a recent article on the university’s blog.
“It’s an unexpected benefit of the commute as it is probably the only time in the day when we can let ourselves drift off.”
People who have small, daily routines – such as catching the bus to work or waking to the train station – tend to be less stressed than those who don’t, says Mitchell. So it’s important we recreate these moments where possible to give our brains the chance to warm up before our work begins.
In a remote work world, that might mean scheduling some time into your diary to take a few laps around the block or finding a spot in the house to sit and look out the window before work each day. What people choose to do will differ, but Mitchell suggests it should be consistent each day and technology-free.
As HRM reported last year when speaking to Dr Fiona Kerr, founder of The NeuroTech Institute and expert on the impacts of technologisation, these tech-free moments are more important than we might realise.
“In order for the brain to go into a state called abstraction – when you are truly creative and have those ‘A-ha!’ moments – you have to turn technology off because it distracts you in all kinds of cognitive ways. We need to design spaces for reflection or to be in nature. Our brains are working in an elaborate and extrapolative way when we’re staring out of a window,” said Kerr.
The persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic is causing many to rethink commutes on a larger scale – two simple ideas that are being floated are a push for more cycling and opening up more regional offices.
The former is already happening in Europe. In France, they’ve created temporary ‘corona cycleways’ using traffic cones and paint. These cater to those too nervous to jump back on public transport, according to the New York Times.
“In Europe, where many cities have integrated cycling as a mode of transportation, the pandemic is speeding up an ecological transition to limit car traffic and cut pollution, especially as new research draws links between dirty air and COVID-19 death rates,” writes Liz Alderman.
French citizens are receiving subsidies to purchase or repair bicycles, and bike sales across Europe have quadrupled since lockdown restrictions were lifted, according to the report.
Australia saw increases in bike sales during the lockdown period too. However, European cities were already cycle-friendly. To encourage more Aussies to ditch the bus in favour of a bike, our local and state leaders would have to reimagine how we design our cities, including more investment in cycleways that connect outer suburbs to the heart of the city.
More radical ideas for cutting down (or out) the commute include decentralising offices by opening up more regional and rural office spaces. Ben Young, a senior executive at Colliers International – a commercial real estate agency – thinks decentralisation is the way of the future.
“We’re of the opinion that we’re going to see more organisations that have the one big office in Melbourne or Sydney that are going to want to have a second satellite office in the case where, if COVID-19 or a similar situation happens again, they don’t have to shut down the entire office,” he said in an article for Commercial Real Estate.
Young said he was having conversations with clients about opening offices outside of the urban hubs before the pandemic hit and says more private business owners are having these conversations now that they’re being forced to think about how they’ll operate in a post-COVID-19 world.
How do you think COVID-19 will change commutes and where we work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.