With 115 million people driving alone for nearly an hour every day, Americans are commuting from further distances, for longer periods of time, than ever before. When you add it all up, commuters take over 50 billion solo trips per year. Eventually, employees feel burnt out by their commute: productivity and engagement plummet, they’re at a higher risk for depression, and 23% of people eventually leave their company for a shorter commute.
Recognizing this massive organizational threat, remote work has become an increasingly popular strategy to solve the burden of commuting and to boost productivity and retention. Already, 3.2 million Americans are working remotely, and 63% of U.S. employers offer some form of flexible work options.
While there’s certainly a bountiful supply of data supporting the benefits of a remote workforce, like higher productivity, emerging research shows that working alone can actually cause the very same problems employers are trying to solve.
Remote work is fueling America’s loneliness epidemic
Although loneliness has reached epidemic levels in America—making it more of a norm than an exception—workers aren’t so keen to share with their employers how overwhelmingly lonely and isolated they are.
Loneliness and communication are the two biggest challenges remote workers face today. The Work Connectivity Study, a groundbreaking global study by Future Workplace and Virgin Pulse, found that remote workers feel isolated, disengaged, and are more likely to quit because of their lack of human contact. In fact, only 5% of surveyors always or very often see themselves working for their employer for their entire career, compared to almost a third that never works remotely.
Commuters have a similar story to tell. Social isolation is the third most stressful aspect of commuting, according to a Royal Society of Public Health study. What’s more, additional research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam discovered that for every extra 10 minutes spent commuting, social engagement plummets by 10%, which leads to greater isolation and unhappiness. Considering commuters collectively take billions of solo drives to work per year, that’s a whole lot of extra minutes spent in isolation. It’s no wonder commuters are seven times more likely to experience presenteeism or that commuting is the third largest driver of voluntary turnover.
Remote work is only a quick-fix for commuters
With so many people driving alone, then working alone, they’re moving from one isolating experience to another, starving themselves of meaningful human connections—something we all need to sustain healthy wellbeing. However, it can take a while for these individuals to realize that their mental health is at risk.
Initially, commuters-turned-telecommuters are overjoyed with their newfound relief. They even feel more productive and satisfied with their work, and managers often take notice. But over time, the loneliness commuters grew to know so well in the car creeps back up. And once it does, these employees are often conflicted: if the agreed-upon solution isn’t a solution after all, where does that leave them? Less productive, disengaged from work, and, ultimately, pining for a job that solves the commute and provides the social interaction they crave.
But here’s the thing: with some organizational intervention, these employees don’t have to leave to find the solution they need.
Solve the commute by building community
If you really want to combat loneliness and isolation, you have to do more than offer commuters the option to work from home. Instead of eliminating the commute entirely, employers should seek additional ways to improve the commute, specifically, to make it a social experience rather than an isolating one.
The majority of America’s workforce already drives alone to work, making employee carpool programs the most organic solution to not only improve the commute but to provide new opportunities to bring people together. Now, carpooling isn’t some new, radical alternative to driving alone, but it can help organizations achieve the same results they aim to meet through working remotely.
A Scoop analysis revealed that 92% of people who carpooled to work met new people and networked with co-workers, and 50% of surveyors reported feeling more productive and energized at work. Moreover, 70% of employees say that carpooling caused them to stay longer at their current employer.
In addition, a study conducted by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Juliana Schroeder of the University of California at Berkeley found that commuters who engage in conversation with strangers during their commute have an overall more positive commuting experience, ultimately improving their wellbeing. Finally, a New Cities Foundation study reported that using social sharing apps, such as Scoop, can reduce drivers’ commute-related stress.
The antidote for loneliness is human connections, plain and simple. Organizations need to make a conscious effort to balance flex work and creating a community-centric commute experience for their people. Only then can they create a happier, more productive, and engaged workforce.
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