From daily grind to precious "me time": How we can reclaim our commutes

Ask any regular commuter about taking the bus or train to work, and most would wish they had another better way to get around or could avoid commuting altogether by working from home. Yet there are some who find the commute enjoyable, viewing long bus trips or early morning train rides as valuable quiet time for leisure activities or catching up on work.

A research team led by Professor Vivien Lim at the NUS Business School recently delved into the question of what makes the commute an exhausting ordeal versus a positive or even refreshing experience. The resulting paper, co-authored by Prof Lim; Egan Lua, a PhD student at the Scheller School of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Professor Thompson Teo at NUS Business School, was selected for publication in the Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings in 2023.

Building on past research that examined commute-related factors such as crowding, commuting distance, and time pressures, this study shed light on the less-obvious factors impacting the commute experience, such as the individual’s choice of in-commute activities and the direction of travel, as well as the lingering effects of a good or bad commute.

The study found that the participants’ choice of in-commute activity influenced whether they felt mentally recovered or drained after a commute, and that the impact of engaging in work-related activities and thoughts during the trip differed with the direction of travel and the individuals’ enjoyment of the commute.

Prof Lim said that the results suggest that individuals can assert control over their commutes and reclaim the time for personal benefit by engaging in activities that boost their mood, energy levels, and overall experience.

In addition, with a better understanding of the post-commute effects of different activities, they can better select those that will ease, rather than hinder, their transition into the workday or back into personal and home life after work.

Prof Lim noted that commuting has been largely overlooked in organisational research, since it takes place outside working hours. This is despite it being a daily activity for almost all employees and having an undeniable impact on their moods, which in turn affects their work attitudes, interactions with others, and performance at work.

“Our results suggest that one’s commute experience can set the tone for the day. This highlights the need for organisations to recognise employees’ commuting experience as a factor impacting their work, and consequently, organisational productivity,” she said.

Keys to a better commuting experience

The research team conducted daily surveys with 106 full-time finance and service industry employees who commute regularly to a fixed work location in Singapore using public transport, reaching the workplace before 9am and leaving before 6pm. Over the course of seven workdays, the surveys measured factors like their work-related activities and thoughts during the commute, their enjoyment of the experience, their work engagement during the day, and how they felt mentally after the commute.

Generally, participants who engaged in leisure activities such as listening to music, zoning out, or snoozing reported feeling more rested and mentally recovered after the commute, regardless of their direction of travel.

On the other hand, work-related activities and thoughts produced more varied results, depending on the conditions and context of the commute. When participants engaged in activities such as reading work-related emails or planning for the workday during an enjoyable morning commute, they were better able to transition into “work mode” once they reached the workplace. However, engaging in the same activities proved detrimental if the trip was made unpleasant by factors like delays, unpredictability, and crowding.

Continuing to think about work on the way home appeared to effectively prolong the workday, resulting in greater fatigue upon reaching home.

“What's particularly interesting is the difference observed when commuters disengaged from work during the evening commute,” said Prof Lim. “Instead of dwelling on work-related thoughts and concerns, those who engaged in leisure activities reported a more positive experience. This suggests that engaging in non-effortful leisure activities helps the commuters to relax.”

The researchers noted that more research is needed to explore the spillover effects of positive commute experiences with more participants in other contexts and transportation settings, as the study focused on a small sample of employees in Singapore. Other factors that could be examined for their impact on commute enjoyment and employees’ post-commute recovery include various types of in-commute activities and thoughts, different modes of transport, and flexible work arrangements.

“Building on the notion that the daily commute has restorative capabilities, this study represents an important step forward in our understanding of positive commute experiences in contributing to employees’ recovery,” the team wrote. “Future research should move away from viewing the commute as a ‘daily grind’, but as a purposeful activity that offers much potential for recovery, work and well-being.”