Has Commuting Been Derailed by COVID-19?

Has Commuting Been Derailed by COVID-19?

By Andy Spinks, Owner of Thoughtsand Executive IT Consulting & GigX Charter Member

A “commuter” is defined as a person who travels to work over an appreciable distance, often from the suburbs to the centre of a city.

I stopped commuting to the office every day about 10 years ago. It was mainly because I was having more and more early morning meetings (sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m.) so I decided to start taking them from home. I didn’t have a home office at the time. I sat in a small area of the house, away from the family, in the dark, so as not to wake anyone. In meetings, I was whispering into my cell phone, trying to see my small laptop screen and continuously logging in and rebooting on a dodgy wi-fi connection using primitive video/audio software and hardware.

But you know what, I managed (even though I still get teased by colleagues convinced I was Harry Potter living under the stairs). Little did I know that I was a pioneer of working from home -- or so I like to think, anyway!

Fast forward and I now work from home full-time, in an office which is arguably better than I would have at an office building. Dedicated space, good internet, nice laptop, phone and monitor, great video and audio meeting tools. And I get served the occasional cup of tea to boot!

The world has indelibly changed as a result of COVID-19, but every cloud may have a silver lining and I think a new era of working from home is one. In addition to the convenience of less travel and more flexible hours, I believe there are other important factors with long term benefits:

  1. The work location: People looking for virtual work may no longer be limited to searching for local jobs on local hours. Someone living in Los Angeles can apply for a job posted in New York. This potentially widens and increases both job opportunities and working hours options.
  2. The work environment: When you consider millions of people commuting long distances to sit in an office doing work they could just as capably do from home (space, resources and tools permitting), it raises the question: Why? It is not just people’s time, it is money, resources, work/life balance and state of mind. Once we are past COVID-19, one of the few real benefits of being in an office -- namely social interaction and closeness -- may have been changed irrevocably, and it is harder to justify commuting for the employee and the employer.
  3. The family impact: I missed a lot of my children’s growing up because of travel to and from work. I can’t get that back and would not wish it on others. Fortunately, working from home should help reduce this for many (although if children are also schooling at home, this could bring a different challenge of too much time together).

At this point, deciding whether to commute is not necessarily about time or cost, it is about the purpose and value. What do my employer and I get out of working in an office compared to working from home?

So what does the future entail? Ultimately, if more people continue to work from home, the demand for roles that rely on a physical presence (i.e., transportation, entertainment, dining) will be reduced accordingly as their customer base (the commuter) shrinks. In the short term, this will create hardship for many, but in the long term I can see a shift in the workforce balance as the economy adjusts to the new “normal.”

In the meantime, companies are busy trying to see through the current uncertainty to plot a path forward based on where they want to get to, and what that destination will look like when they arrive. It is likely that this journey will, however, include significantly less commuters.


About the Author

Andy Spinks is the founder and owner of Thoughtsand Executive IT Consulting. He is a highly experienced Information Technology Executive with a demonstrated history of working in the pharmaceuticals and telecommunications industries, specializing in integrating data and technology solutions with business strategy and key processes. After 35 years of working in large corporate organizations in the UK and US, he decided to become an independent consultant. He is presently working with a venture capital start up and exploring other consulting opportunities.

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