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Return To Office Could Work, But Return To Commute Is What Workers Really Hate

A traffic jam on Interstate 95 in Miami

Onerous commutes are the real sticking point when it comes to returning to the office, and some companies are starting to meet employees where they are.

Employees were less likely to have returned the office en masse in cities that had longer average commutes, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Census Bureau and building access company Kastle Systems data from 24 major metros.

Among the 10 cities with the biggest pandemic-related drop in office occupancies, eight of them had an average commute time before the pandemic of more than half an hour, the WSJ reports. Of the 10 cities with the smallest decline in occupancy, six had an average commute of less than half an hour.

“I think it is the biggest factor,” Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and School of Cities, told the WSJ. “Economists and psychologists have long said that a long commute is the most immiserating condition of daily life."

More than half of the respondents to a Gallup survey last summer listed avoiding their commute as a top reason for not going into the office in person. Other common reasons, such as a concern for well-being or the desire for flexibility, were related to the annoyances of a daily commute.

Of those who can work off-site, Gallup further found that 30% want to be fully remote, while 60% want to be remote at least some days of the week. Gallup estimates this year will see a 37% reduction of in-person days worked per week for those who can work remotely.

A handful of major companies have tried to revive the five-day-a-week schedule at a central office, but workers are resisting. Google Maps contract employees in Washington state circulated a petition to avoid a five-day in-person schedule, citing the high cost of gas as one of many reasons not to commute so often, Bloomberg reports.

When they can, companies are adjusting to the situation by opening smaller offices nearer to their workers or relocating entirely. The New York Times reports such a trend in New York, with some companies moving out of Manhattan to the outer boroughs, where their workers tend to live.

At an average of nearly 38 minutes, New Yorkers suffered through the longest commute times in the nation before the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau.