When the pandemic this spring prompted the closure of “nonessential businesses,” tens of millions of us had to quickly set up makeshift home offices and grapple with the competing and overlapping demands of work and family responsibilities. In short order, the boundaries between work and home life were obliterated. As weeks have turned into months, planned returns to work have been postponed, the duration of this crisis remains uncertain, and the stress and strain grows.
As executive coaches and leadership experts, we hear daily from leaders about these daunting demands. Interestingly, in the first weeks of this work-at-home shift, many leaders told us that they were grateful for one silver lining: no more commute. What a boon to be able to get right to the extra challenges and longer hours needed to help themselves, their teams, and their businesses navigate through this challenging period.
Months later, however, the tune of many employees has changed. Many are feeling burnt out by day’s end. And here’s the rub: when their umpteenth email has been sent, their back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings have finally ended, and their laptop has been powered down, their “commute” is now a matter of seconds. In a few strides, they move from their workspace to become a full-time spouse, partner, caregiver, and/or parent. The abrupt daily transitions from valued executive or employee to on-call resource for anything and everything at home, and then back to work again, can be jarring.
To avoid this harmful pandemic vertigo, we need transitional time and space, and boundary management strategies. Ironically, the solution is reestablishing a commute—what we call a virtual commute—in order to intentionally transition into and out of work. Implementing a virtual commute can help improve job performance, enrich home-life relationships, and lead to overall better health and wellness.
Benefits of a virtual commute
While traditional workplace commutes have long been a source of complaints and jokes, a series of recent studies indicate a number of solid benefits associated with commuting. For example, researchers have found that those who set regular commuting routines, like picking up a morning Americano, listening to a morning reporter, or looking at the day’s calendar “felt more excited about the day ahead, more satisfied with their jobs, and less stressed-out than those who had no set routine.”
Preparing for and reflecting on the workday, even in short, focused amounts can be key to better performance. Researcher Jon Jachimowicz, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, finds that people who engage in “work-related prospection” (thinking and planning about the day and week ahead and steps needed to take toward career goals) are better equipped to handle workday stressors and experience increased job satisfaction. For example, one high-tech sales leader we know mentally builds her “must do” list during the warm-up phase of her treadmill workout each morning.
The evening commute, on the other hand, appears to be an optimal time to consolidate memory of lessons learned throughout the day. One of us coaches a nonprofit CEO who journals briefly at the end of each workday, focusing on his own “after-action reviews” of key meetings, interactions, and decisions made, looking to mentally replay, recognize and reinforce what’s working for him as well as identify and eliminate negative habits and biases.
Transitioning from personal to professional life and back again requires a shift in roles and mindsets, and the time we typically spend commuting can help us make these shifts more easily. For a construction executive we know, it’s the simple act of changing from work boots to comfortable shoes and 10 minutes walking the dog that does the trick. Dr. Tara Swart, an executive leadership coach and neuroscientist, found that taking 12 minutes to engage in a mindfulness activity after work (such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, a simple body scan, or focus on our breath) lowers stress response in the body and allows us to effectively shift focus from work to personal life.
Why is making this shift so important? Neuroscience research increasingly demonstrates that chronic stress builds up and begins to take its toll on brain functioning. Unfortunately, as neuropsychologist Dr. Michelle Braun reminds us in an article for Psychology Today, “the same stress hormones that are so helpful in short-term (change) situations can significantly compromise bodily functioning, mood, and even brain health when stressors are chronic.” Short-term results include poor problem solving, faulty decision making, and irritability.
Conversely, even smaller transitional times and spaces can enable stress reduction and recovery. The morning transitional routine enables better executive functioning for problem-solving, decision-making, and collaboration. An end-of-day transitional routine allows our brains to ease off the stress hormones, better regulate our emotions, and activate positive neurochemicals that increase our empathy and other pro-social behaviors.
Build your own virtual commute
Here are six practical steps to establish your own virtual commute.
1. Block out the time. Estimate your usual prior commute time and place it on your calendar at the beginning and end of each day. If you didn’t have a regular commute, simply set your virtual commute at 15 minutes each way (the average time of a traditional commute is 38 minutes). You might start with three days a week at first and make it a goal to expand to a full week.
2. Make a list. Think about the things you typically do on a commute that are personally most helpful, effective, and restorative in terms of your mental, physical, social, and emotional health. Write this list down.
3. Consider new possibilities. What are additional options for health and wellness that you can do at home during this commute time since you aren’t physically driving or traveling? How about calling and checking on a neighbor or loved one? There are also endless online resources available for yoga, meditation, exercise and gratitude journaling, just to name a few. Write down at least one new possibility that resonates with you.
4. Be intentional. Consider your personal needs in a morning versus an evening commute. Activities that help you focus in and wake up the mind and body may be most helpful in the morning, whereas decompressing and detaching may be most helpful in the evening. See the Venn diagram below for examples of each kind, as well as those that serve well for any transition.
5. Build new rituals. Populate your calendar with 1-2 routine morning virtual commute activities and 1-2 afternoon/evening virtual commute activities. Commit to these for two weeks. For example, one of us does a daily workday routine of stretches and movement before sitting down at the desk to begin work.
6. Reflect and take action. Review at the end of two weeks with some reflective writing: What were the benefits? Which activities worked for you? Do you want to substitute other activities for the next couple of weeks? Do you want to reorder the current activities on your list?
Commit to growth
Establishing a virtual commute is a simple, effective addition to proven stress-reduction remedies, such as cardiovascular exercise, quality sleep, and a healthy diet. If you are feeling overstretched working from home, you are just 15 minutes away from easing stress, being more present at work and with loved ones, and improving workplace performance. Better yet, the practices you build now can continue as you reenter the workplace.
We can all be more intentional about our commutes, how we spend them, and the role they play in our overall well-being and productivity. Why not start your virtual commute now?