Career & Jobs

What Does Commuting Do To Innovation?

It’s rare to find any of us that enjoy our commute, and the removal of it as so many have had to work from home during Covid has been one of the undisputed perks of Covid life. As you might expect, however, things are seldom as straightforward as they seem.

For instance, research from the University of Cambridge highlights how our commute can provide us with a great way to clearly demarcate our professional and personal lives.

The researchers argue that our commute actually plays a vital role in helping us transition from our work life to our personal life, thus greatly helping our work-life balance. Indeed, the commute is especially important for those who struggle with work-family conflicts.

“With no more separation of home and work, many remote workers will now miss out on the opportunity to transition into their work role during their commute,” the researchers say.  “Our study challenges the idea that commuting time is necessarily harmful and has a negative impact on workers’ attitudes toward their jobs. The situation actually is far more nuanced: instead of passively enduring what many people see as a drudgery, employees can actively shape their commute into a useful period of role transition that will benefit them at work.”

Supporting innovation

Recent research from Harvard Business School explores how our commute affects not only our productivity but also our creativity and innovation. They found a clear correlation between the length of our commute and the quality of innovative output from that firm. What’s more, the impact of the commute was particularly pronounced on the strongest performers in the firm.

“It’s amazing how robust the results are. Commuting hurts both innovative quantity and quality, especially for an organization’s highest-performing workers,” the researchers say.

The researchers analyzed data from 3,445 innovators from 1,180 firms from across New England and California, with innovation data coming from the US Patent Office and Trademark Office, Data Axle USA, and Dataquick.

Distance matters

The study found that for every 10 kilometers added to the commute each day, the firm employing those innovators registered 5% fewer patents than those enjoying a shorter commute. What’s perhaps even more harmful is that the quality of each patent declined even further, falling 7% for every 10 kilometers traveled per day.

This decline was most prominent among the most talented inventors, whose output declined by an incredible 10% for every 10 kilometers traveled each day.

“For inventors with long commutes, any distance you can reduce the commute, you can gain in innovative productivity,” the researchers explain. “The total opportunity cost of commuting for workers can exceed their hourly wages, amounting to thousands of dollars per average worker per year, and this is before taking into account potential costs on workers’ subjective well-being.

What to do

So, what should you do with this information? Well, obviously there have been numerous examples in the past of companies actually paying employees to live closer to the workplace, precisely to ensure that such lengthy commutes are not commonplace.

The researchers conducted their study prior to the pandemic so it’s not clear if remote working has any kind of impact on innovation output either, whether in a positive or negative way. Research conducted a few years ago by MIT does support the notion that physical proximity matters for innovation, however.

The study examined over 40,000 published papers and 2,350 patents from MIT researchers over a 10 year period, and mapped out a network of collaborators across the university, before then examining the locations of each collaboration, particularly in relation to the departmental and institutional membership of each researcher.

“Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” the researchers say. “That is, you have better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.

Central to the finding was the so-called Allen Curve that was devised by MIT professor Thomas Allen. It suggests that collaboration diminishes as a function of distance. Indeed, even simple conversations are significantly less likely to occur when people are over 10 meters apart.

Despite Allen’s work first appearing in 1977, and a large number of digital tools emerging since then to try and mitigate its impact, the MIT paper suggests its findings still hold true today.

All in the mind

A second Harvard study from a few years ago suggests that our mindset could be crucial in dealing effectively with our commute. It found that our attitude towards our commute played a big role in how affected by it we are.

Our perceptions of the commute are typically betrayed by the activities we choose to occupy ourselves with during this time. For instance, if we distract ourselves by reading or listening to music, it’s likely that we view the commute negatively.

If however, we use the commute to focus on the work ahead and thus detach ourselves from the home life we’re leaving, it’s more likely we will view the time as a productive buffer between work and home.

The research first examined if there was a link between the levels of self-control a person had and their satisfaction levels at work. They then built on this to test whether this influenced the psychological impact of their commute.

Interestingly, the results did indeed reveal a correlation, with those employees who scored lower on self-control having a much lower opinion of their commute than their more self-controlled peers. Indeed, the commute was also more likely to be cited as a factor should these individuals quit their job.

This hypothesis was then supported by a second study that found that self-control had a big impact on our ability to switch between personal and professional mode, and therefore the subsequent emotional stress and exhaustion caused by our work life.

Of course, self-control is far from a fixed trait, and many studies previously have shown that our levels of self-control are influenced by our tiredness and other similar factors.

Indeed, the study even revealed that employees could be gently nudged into more productive behaviors on their commute. So the message appears to be that if you want your employees to regard their commute positively, then sending a gentle reminder to spend a small portion of it planning their day can do the trick.

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