COVID-19 has taken a great deal from society, including for many, time spent getting to work. That used to be found during a simple transit ride. It’s a daily ritual that goes back generations – allowing for everything from a quick nap to working on the final points of a master’s degree. Today, we pine for a return to a time that was – even while riding with a vehicle full of other travellers – all ours.
They’re called stolen moments for a reason.
Time quietly appropriated doing what we want to do, rather than just what has to be done. Since the early part of the 19th century in North America, daily commutes have offered up precious minutes to allow the mind to be ignited by work to come or settle after a hard day earning pay.
Transit doesn’t just offer the vehicle to get from one place to another. At its best, it’s a personal respite and scheduled time just for our own mind to wander wherever we want to take it.
But what happens when that time is suddenly stolen back?
Commuter Kevin Richardson is among a global community that, since COVID-19 stopped many routine journeys, is now craving for moments spent on transit.
Before the pandemic, the Brampton software trainer usually spent half his week jumping on GO Transit to take him into downtown Toronto. His previous job, for a toy company, had him making that same commute, every workday.
Before joining most people over these months working from home, Richardson didn’t think he’d ever miss his time on transit – catching up on social media as he headed in from Mount Pleasant GO Station and reading biographies as he returned home in the evening.
Then he realized he had lost a span than connected his home and work life. Today, he hardly has time to read books, because there’s no clear separation from something that seems like more work.
“Suddenly, there was no formal transition,” he points out of days staying and working from home.
“We go from shower time to work time in seconds.”
Richardson says he’s now learned his internal drives – inspiration, focus and strategizing – work like a car: “I need to warm the engine up.”
Like many people, he’s not sure what his routine will look like in the future. But he is sure he misses nonchalant trips that were as much a part of his day as the moments after he arrived at his destination.
And he’s not alone.
He’s had the same conversation with others – travellers who are fidgety without the time and mental space commuting can give.
It seems their nostalgia of days before face masks and line-ups outside COSTCO is rooted in science.
Researchers have found that commutes are important psychological bridges – providing needed transition periods as we enter a working day or move toward the ease of an evening. It’s the gear that’s positioned between slow and fast during a mental shift.
In a recent study by the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School, officials found a daily commute was time finding “role-clarifying prospection”. They are minutes in a passenger seat that allows for an important psychological adjustment.
The authors point out of their report: “Integrating theories of boundary work, self-control, and work-family conflict, we propose that the commute to work serves as a liminal role transition between home and work roles, prompting employees to engage in boundary management strategies.
“Although the commute to work is typically seen as an undesirable part of the workday, our theory and results point to the benefits of using it as an opportunity to transition into one’s work role.”
Having this bridge, they’ve found, can spill over into not only how we do at work, but what our home life is like as well.
Though assistant professor Jon Jachimowicz , one of the study’s co-authors, stresses that missing idle time on a bus of train – even as customers now slowly return to transit – is a privilege. The assistant professor tells Metrolinx News that given the jobs lost and lives upended by COVID-19: “Whenever we talk about the negative impacts, we really should be mindful of the fact that there are larger inequalities out there.
“There is a large portion of population that have completely different problems right now.”
Jachimowicz says he’s constantly aware of colleagues who have been trying to fulfill work roles, while still being parents at home with children. For them, there is no reset or time alone to gather thoughts and prepare for chores ahead.
To help him create a path to work each day while he works from home, the researcher still puts on office clothes in the morning. After work, they’re replaced with casual attire.
“I am trying to create boundaries but it is challenging…to continue working but not having the ability to distance yourself from work,” says Jachimowicz.
“That separation isn’t available anymore.”
Time spent is man’s oldest currency, but experts like Jachimowicz are still trying to learn about the forces which impact that very personal exchange. Now add a worldwide pandemic in as a market disrupter.
Other studies have found that free time can ignite human imagination – giving commuters extra minutes to let their minds wander into unexplored areas of creativity. Doing without it is giving up a chance to settle and process what’s happened before and what’s left to do.
Prior to COVID-19 putting the brakes on great portions of life, work and travel, around 16-million Canadians would commute daily. That number is now drastically changed, and still shifting daily as more people are allowed to return to workplaces.
David Bissell, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, told Metrolinx News in an interview last year that when he looked into commutes, travellers often pushed back at the notion it was “dead time”.
“For some, it was the only time in the day that they had to themselves, to zone out, to daydream, to listen to podcasts, to watch movies,” he said at the time. “For many, this was the only time when they weren’t doing paid or unpaid work for someone else.
“In other words, commuting is the thread that connects so many significant dimensions of our lives together.”
Today, as commuters are allowed to slowly return, they will find their habits again – freed from apartments, condos and homes often filled with others who have also been locked in place.
A big part of that return journey will be grabbing, and perhaps appreciating, the privileged position of having stolen moments, all to ourselves, again.