There's that one guy who commuted seven hours a day and claimed to love it. But for most people, the daily commute is something we dread. The average commute time in America is 25 minutes, per the Census Bureau (with great variation by region). Double that and multiply it by five, and then by 50, and you’re looking at 208 hours per year spent strap-hanging, bus-riding, or car-driving, all in an effort to get to and from work.
What if you could get that time back? That’s what Ralph and Georges Harik, the brothers who run the Palo Alto-based messaging company Imo, came to wonder. A few years ago, reading that another Palo Alto company (Facebook) had flirted with a similar policy, they began offering a $500 monthly housing stipend to employees who chose to live within five miles of Imo’s office. Today, of Imo’s roughly 20 employees, all but one or two have taken up the Hariks on their offer. "We wanted to help people get to a place that makes them happy, and us happy," Georges tells Fast Company.
Georges’s favorite commute was to Imo’s previous office. He lived within a minute and a half’s walk to work. "There was no worrying about when to leave in order to get there on time," he says. "There was one stoplight in between, and sometimes when it was red, it would take an extra 30 seconds to get to work."
The principal benefits of living near where you work are almost too obvious to mention; the time that would have spent commuting simply goes back to things you love: family, friends, hobbies, sleep. But Imo has found there are secondary benefits, too. A five-mile radius (plus Palo Alto’s climate) makes active commutes, via bike or foot, more likely. Employees find they’re able to pop home during their lunch break to take care of a few quick chores. Those who have dogs are saving on doggy day care or dog-walker fees, since they can run home to let Fido out for a spell. There are family-related perks, too: Ralph Harik goes home around lunchtime these days to visit his 9-month-old daughter.
And when your employees work near one another, it necessarily makes them neighbors, strengthening social bonds among your workforce. Three of Imo’s employees live in the same apartment complex, and a number of the company's interns wind up rooming together. "Everyone’s living in the same area. It’s nice," says Ralph. "I know a lot of people go out to movies together."
On one hand, living near work helps restore some sanity to work-life balance. But is there a sense in which residing near the office disrupts that balance—since the workplace lurks a mere mile, or few miles, away?
"If you leave, nobody follows you home," says Georges. "I think the main issue with getting away from work these days is with email and electronic connectivity. That’s much more of an issue than how close we live to work." (It’s something Imo, which makes a connectivity app, pays attention to in their product, by allowing you to mute certain chat groups you’re a part of and allowing you to inform the app what hours of the day you don’t want to be disturbed.)
Why take the form of a subsidy? Couldn’t the Harik brothers simply pay their employees an extra six grand a year, and verbally encourage them to live nearby? They could, of course, but they’ve chosen to implement this behavioral experiment. Economists have found that many people simply make poor choices about housing and commutes, choices that may result in more money in the bank, but decreased happiness. "They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun," wrote Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker of that seven-hour commuter . So the Hariks engage in what some behavioral economists call "libertarian paternalism," creating incentive structures towards healthy behavior, while allowing the freedom to eschew it.
It’s a philosophy made manifest in several other ways around the Imo office: the pair of walking treadmills (with laptop-ready tables) , the forthcoming standing desks, the catered food presenting healthy choices. In another effort to boost happiness in the workplace, Imo’s office manager organizes hikes, trips to Lake Tahoe, and trips to sporting events. "We’ve gone white-water rafting," says Ralph. He thinks for a second. "That was a little bit on the edge of dangerous."