Pre-pandemic, my standard commute averaged 90 minutes each way — two hours if the weather was bad or if I left the house after 7:30 a.m. That held true whether I joined the grille-to-tailpipe crawl along Interstate 66, or wedged myself nose-to-armpit with other Metrorail riders, or treated myself to a stiff-necked nap on a long-haul commuter bus. (Fortunately, even before the pandemic, I had flexible hours and the option of working from home when circumstances warranted.)
But this particular morning, I hit the road at 8 a.m. and made the 40-mile drive in 45 minutes. Wouldn’t it be nice, I mused, if it could always be like this, with most workers commuting only as needed, rather than to meet arbitrary employer expectations, minimizing congestion for everyone.
Sheila Emond, a federal employee in Franklin, Mass., shares my view. Working remotely for 14 months saved her 90 minutes per day of commuting time, hundreds of dollars in gas money, and wear-and-tear on her car and herself. “The lack of stress … may have added a year to my life,” she says.
During the pandemic, D.C.-area traffic dropped from fifth-worst in the nation to 12th, the steepest drop of any U.S. metro area. A New York Times article analyzing trends in rush-hour traffic over the past year suggests that flexible scheduling and telework policies could make life better not just for those working remotely, but for everyone else as well — by flattening the peaks of rush-hour congestion that city and transit planners have to design everything around.
As pleasantly surprised as I was by the easy commute, I was utterly unprepared for the surge of joy I felt at seeing the parking garage attendant’s familiar face. As we revived our old payment-for-ticket routine with newfound earnestness — “How are you? So good to see you again!”—it struck me how close we had come to losing that small personal ritual forever.
Reentering the workplace felt at once familiar and foreign, imparting a sense of day-job vu. My colleague and I crept past empty cubicles and offices, feeling a bit like scavengers or archaeologists touring a post-apocalyptic civilization that was largely unchanged except for the hand-sanitizer stations and politely worded safety signs posted everywhere.
As with visiting an old elementary school years after graduation, everything seemed smaller somehow. I realized I’d outgrown boundaries I never noticed before — for example, swearing audibly, a habit I’ve become overly comfortable indulging at home.
Other remote workers making their return are discovering that the workplace has become too tight a fit in other ways. Some tech companies that embraced fully remote work models at the start of the pandemic have announced plans to resume requiring regular in-office hours, leading to complaints from workers and, in some cases, departures for jobs with more flexibility and autonomy.
Of course, many workers received no commuting reprieve at all in the past year, even if their commute was less crowded.
For many essential workers and service providers, not being at the workplace meant not having a job, and they had less control over their working hours and conditions than ever.
After a year-plus of serving stressed-out customers and dealing with the constant threat of exposure to the coronavirus, increasing numbers of hourly workers are abruptly leaving their jobs for better opportunities. And health-care workers on the front lines of the pandemic have been burning out and dropping out at an alarming rate. For all the praise essential workers have received over the past year, precious little has been done to tangibly and permanently improve their working conditions and their ability to earn a secure, comfortable living.
Although Emond, the federal worker, described her year of working from home as “some of the best months of my entire life,” she also expressed sorrow that “it took something so horrible to create such a positive change.” If there’s any lasting good to come from this global tragedy, it will mean remembering the ways we’ve adapted for the better, saying “what if it could always be this way,” and taking the steps to make that what-if a reality.