Bosses and workers still can’t agree on whether the commute is part of the work day. It explains why RTO is still such a problem


When does your workday start? Is it the moment you leave your apartment for the subway? When you read your first Slack message while waiting for coffee in your office building lobby? Or is it when you get to your desk, open your laptop, and log into your inbox? If you ask workers, they’re likely to say commuting counts as work. You can imagine what their superiors think. 

The commute is just one way bosses and workers often disagree on what counts as a productive workday. The back-and-forth is what has landed most companies in a seemingly endless war with their employees over the return to office. When it comes to remote work (and whether it’s actually as productive as being in the office), the problem actually boils down to fundamental differences in perspective. 

That’s according to the latest National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper from economists Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. It pinpoints the two big disconnects between managers and workers that are stalling return to work efforts. First: Workers think nixing the commute directly leads to greater productivity because it puts more hours back in their day. Second: Workers aren’t grasping the managerial challenges of leading a remote workforce. 

The real dilemma is that the two sides make valid points. The commute is, by definition, time spent not working, although many workers who stay home end up spending the extra hours on their jobs anyway. And even the staunchest pro-flexibility experts acknowledge that in-person work is critical for early career workers—and that middle managers are mired in the unenviable position of enforcing the in-office mandates of the higher-ups and assuaging the concerns of the entry-level workers digging their heels in. The mismatched understanding of what matters most (and what actually impacts productivity) explains why we’re still—after all this time—playing tug of war. 

The matter of commuting

Accounting for commute time is a “big deal” when assessing the effectiveness of remote work, Barrero, one of the researchers and an assistant finance professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Business School, tells Fortune. Among respondents who told Barrero they’re more productive at home, nearly all (86%) say the time they save by not commuting is a major perk and one of their favorite parts of working from home. 

“Consider someone who works eight paid hours a day, lives thirty minutes from the office, and accomplishes the same amount whether working from home or the office,” the authors wrote in the working paper. “Total time devoted to work is nine hours per day when commuting and eight hours per day when working from home. So, the worker perceives (correctly) that he or she accomplishes the same amount in 11 percent less time when working from home—a big productivity boost!”

Workers thus have more hours back for other activities, whether it be leisure or childcare. While they’re not always spending these hours on their job, many do end up spending it getting more work done. That’s probably more productive than employers assume. 

To that point, Barrero, Bloom, and Davis cite their  WFH Research data that finds that nearly half (43%) of workers with remote-capable jobs say they’re more productive at home; just 14% said they’re less productive. (The remaining 43% said they were about the same in either place.) 

Still, though, WFH Research also finds that fully remote work is associated with 10% to 20% lower productivity than fully in-person work. Barrero explained the disparity to Fortune in July: “In many of the studies we cite and in some of our own survey evidence, workers often get more done when remote simply because they save time from the daily commute and from other office distractions. This can make them look more productive on a ‘per day’ basis, even if it means they’re actually less productive on a ‘per hour’ basis.”

The ongoing discrepancy in perspective has been ongoing for quite some time. Back in January, research from the Harvard Business Review found that employees tend to include their time commuting to work in their assessment When that commute is eliminated, they view it as a productivity increase. Employers, naturally, instead see it as less bang for their buck. 

The labyrinth of hybrid work has turned managers into ‘shock absorbers’

While workers may be quick to say bosses want them in office to keep a closer eye on them (considering all the productivity paranoia going on, who can blame them?), it’s a little more nuanced than that. What workers think may be more productive for them is not always more productive for managers. This can leave employees “blind” to their managers’ plight, the working paper finds.

Senior managers in particular are worried about how a remote workforce would wallop company culture, the researchers write. Namely, they fear it would reduce opportunities for training and upskilling among greener workers, which would have a domino effect on the whole company’s productivity. It contributes to that 10% to 20% productivity decline the researchers found.

“Supervising, training, mentoring, and building firm culture is much harder” with fully remote workers than with workers who come in a few times per week, Barrero previously told Fortune. Challenges in communicating remotely and lack of motivation are the main issues preventing fully remote workers from being more productive, he said. There’s also growing evidence that remote work is conducive to budding relationships with peers, and likely to hamstring their opportunities for earning potential—and for talent development in young workers.

It’s not easy being the boss, especially when tasked with both enforcement and acquiescence as the norms of the workplace continue evolving at a rapid clip. Two-thirds of leaders say they have more responsibilities now than they did before COVID, and their rates of reported burnout are through the roof.

As O.C. Tanner Institute VP Gary Beckstrand wrote for Fortune, middle managers have become companies’ “invaluable shock absorbers.” They’re less likely than workers above or below them to feel appreciated, and they’re more likely to say that, since 2020, they’ve struggled more with mentoring employees and communicating effectively. A major way to fix the issue, sorry to say, is more in-person collaboration, Beckstrand wrote. “When managers feel connected to their teams, the odds that an organization’s culture will thrive increase 18-fold.”

But when it comes to in-person work, Barrero says bosses underestimate how amenable employees might be to the upsides. Workers, especially younger ones, are well aware of how beneficial in-person gatherings can be. “Actually, [the] share of people who want to be fully remote is highest for older workers, and increases with age,” he says. “I think managers and the public are perhaps a bit too cynical about workers’ perceptions of in-person work. Many workers seem well-attuned to the tradeoffs of interacting remotely.” 

Luckily, the solution isn’t nearly as vexing as it may seem. As the experts have maintained for years, a flexible hybrid schedule is almost always the proper approach.

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