On a train ride home from university many years ago, I discovered the joy of staring out a window at a moving landscape and thinking about as little as possible. I had books to read and movies to watch, but doing nothing felt more urgent, allowing my head to process what had been crammed into it before emptying out.
It took a pandemic for me to realize that my daily commute was doing the same important work.
Most people rank ditching the commute at the top of the list of remote-work benefits. Who wants to spend an hour each day crowded among strangers, stuck in traffic or dodging car doors?
Advisors are among the biggest beneficiaries. Statistics Canada data for the pandemic’s first year found the finance and insurance sector had the highest proportion (73%) of home workers. Many advisors have cut back on visiting clients, sometimes in remote regions, reclaiming even more travel time.
But as firms prepare for permanent flexible work, some people are also feeling the new routine’s strain, finding it difficult to separate work from home. The loss of that loathsome ritual may be part of the problem.
A 2019 paper published in the Journal of Management examined ways employees recover from work and how important that recovery is to their levels of fatigue, their mental health and, ultimately, their performance. Early in the pandemic, one of the study’s authors, Brian Swider from the University of Florida, explained the findings as they related to the new work-from-home context.
Swider broke workers into two broad categories: integrators and segmenters. Integrators thrive at home because they have no problem jumping between professional and domestic tasks. They’re the ones walking the dog on team calls and sending emails at midnight.
Segmenters (my clan, and Swider’s) prefer to keep work and home separate. Without a commute, the boundary between the two becomes porous.
Microsoft conducted research last year on how the pandemic was contributing to employee burnout, and found the lack of commute may be hurting productivity.
“Commutes provide blocks of uninterrupted time for mentally transitioning to and from work, an important aspect of well-being and productivity,” wrote Shamsi Iqbal, the principal researcher. “People will say, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to commute anymore. I’m saving time.’ But without a routine for ramping up for work and then winding down, we’re emotionally exhausted at the end of the day.”
Microsoft was already researching how to make the most of commutes. In 2017, the company tested digital assistants to help employees gear and up and wind down on their commutes by asking questions like “What do you need to get done today?” or “How did you feel about the day?” The nudges boosted productivity.
The company is adapting what it learned to a “virtual commute.” Microsoft Teams can provide an alert 15 minutes before the end of the day asking remote workers if they’re ready to “leave,” and prompting them to close tasks before signing off to free up mental space.
As financial institutions develop plans for permanent hybrid work, preserving that mental space will become more important. Many of us have grown accustomed to emergency solutions adopted in March 2020 without sufficient thought or design. The burnout Microsoft documented is a risk for advisors at the best of times, and especially when a client’s problems are more able to trespass into the private domain.
Swider said even integrators need detachment. He suggested leaving tasks that can’t be completed on a phone to the workday and setting clear standards for after-hours work: responding to no more than five emails after 5 p.m., for example, or working only one hour after dinner.
For segmenters, Swider recommended simulating a commute to “replicate the separation ritual,” even if that’s a 20-minute walk at the end of the day. Work tech should also be separated from the devices used for home entertainment.
Some readers will already have developed more sophisticated methods for balancing work and home life. Encouraging your team to adopt them will be crucial in the uncertain months ahead. Those of us who rely on the old rituals will welcome a partial return to the office — at least we think we will. After missing our commutes in the abstract, we’ll soon be confronted with the real, miserable thing again.
Mark Burgess is managing editor of Advisor’s Edge. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.