Super Commutes Increase With Return-to-Office Policies

Annie Erling Gofus - Apr 10 2023
Published in: Global Workforce
| Updated May 04 2023
Hybrid work has made it possible for certain employees to balance their work and personal lives across different locations.

In the pre-pandemic era, a super commuter was defined as an individual who endured a minimum of 90 minutes of travel time to and from work, frequently for five days a week. However, with the onset of COVID-19 quarantines, these employees took advantage of the opportunity to detach themselves from their city-based jobs and relocate to distant locations. Many believed they would be able to work remotely indefinitely.

These individuals who commute for more than 90 minutes to work are referred to as super commuters. This extra-long commute could either be due to financial constraints that prevent them from living in proximity to their workplace or the allure of a particular lifestyle that can only be found further away. In the period spanning 2010 to 2019, the U.S. workforce witnessed a 45% growth in super commuters, as per Chris Salviati, senior housing economist at Apartment List. 

The concept of super commuters is not a novel idea. In countries like the United States, where the landscape is vast, certain employees, particularly high-ranking executives, have been commuting over long distances for a considerable period of time.

The pandemic has amplified this trend, with a surge in the number of individuals living hundreds of miles away or in different states from their workplaces. This new breed of super commuters is a consequence of the widespread adoption of hybrid work policies by companies. Although they commute less frequently, their journeys are even more extensive.

In the past, individuals who undertook these arduous long-distance commutes shared several similarities. They were typically high-ranking or affluent knowledge workers. These professionals were permitted to reside far from their workplace and only report to the office occasionally.

Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the BBC, “The super commuters are mainly knowledge professionals who don’t have to be physically present every day—that’s about half the workers in the U.S.”

Achieving success sometimes involves taking early-morning flights to different time zones, booking a second apartment or staying at hotels, or spontaneously boarding a plane or train to attend an unplanned meeting with a supervisor. Despite the added costs of lodging and travel, some long-distance commuters argue that the benefits can lead to thousands of dollars in savings or an improved work-life balance.

Research has shown that longer commutes are associated with higher levels of stress and reduced well-being, but certain studies propose that having a more adaptable commuting schedule can be a potent remedy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey data estimated that 4.6 million people, or 3.1% of the American workforce, were super commuters

If hybrid work becomes a permanent fixture in many workplaces, more professionals may have the option to super commute. So, what do employers need to know about super commuters?


How Do Employers Manage Super Commuters?

Presently, these long-distance commuters are beginning to acknowledge that their employers expect them to return to the office, at least part-time. Some of these individuals have been reluctant about disclosing their commuting arrangements to their managers. Others, overwhelmed by the logistical hurdles, have either quit their jobs or relocated closer to their workplaces.

Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Texas, told the BBC that “companies want their workers, especially the supervisors, in the office on a regular basis—maybe not five days a week, but more than once a month. So, there’s a lot of tension right now between those who want to commute long distances very occasionally—whether it’s 90 miles by car or 500 miles by plane—and employers who want them close.”

This practice can present several difficulties for both the employee and the employer. HR leaders should aim to alleviate any tension by exploring practical solutions and finding opportunities to fulfill employee requests for fully remote work, as such positions are expected to remain prevalent for the foreseeable future.

The duration of time that super commuters spend traveling to and from work has an impact on their accessibility. They tend to spend less time in the office than employees with shorter commutes, often coming in only once or twice a week or month instead of every day. The fact that super commuters may need help in making it to the office on short notice in the event of an urgent requirement also complicates the arrangement. 

Although many employees are eager to return to the office, many find the daily commute taxing. Battling traffic, time constraints, and the extra time required to prepare and travel to work are daily challenges. Super commuters, in particular, experience more significant difficulties getting to and from work than most. This can take a toll on employees over time, leading to heightened stress and burnout. 

Employers must also consider the legal implications of managing a multi-state workforce. First, managers must know exactly where their employees are living and how many days they spend in their home state versus their work state.

Taxes can be especially complicated with super commuters, as their time spent living and working is split between multiple states. Employers must review the other state’s tax laws and determine what taxes should be withheld. It is also important to review policies regarding commuter benefits. 

As employees transition back to the physical office, many relocated workers are contemplating the idea of super commuting. While lengthy commutes may permit them to maintain their new living arrangements, they can present obstacles for both employees and employers.

Business leaders are grappling with the challenge of bringing employees back to the office, particularly those who have relocated. If they mandate a full-time return, they risk losing a significant portion of their workforce, as research has shown. Additionally, super commuting comes with associated costs, such as increased cost of living, rising gas prices, and household rent, which can lead to significant financial implications for workers who are required to come on-site even once or twice a week.

Top companies recognize that prioritizing the employee experience yields numerous benefits for their business, including enhanced productivity. Neglecting the employee experience can have negative consequences for a company's future growth and profitability. Working with a super commuter to make their hybrid schedule can increase retention and improve the employee experience.