Today's most successful businesses are experimenting with innovative new commuter benefits to deal with one of the most useless aspects of modern life.
Your best employee is on her way to work, and she just can't get her head together. See, it's hard for Sheila to pull a rain-soaked briefcase closed while squeezing onto the subway, and even harder to organize her thoughts after gathering its contents hurriedly off the floor. She performs better for the bottom line than most of her co-workers, but doesn't enjoy the burdens of commuting — and so, when she arrives at work after the better part of 60 minutes in transit, it takes her a further half-hour to reach her peak level of efficiency.
This is an increasingly common story; one that the Washington Post reports is getting worse by the day. Silicon Valley has made the most headlines for its innovative approach to this issue, implementing things like company bus services and car-share subscriptions, but Silicon Valley organizations have resources most others can't match. So can more typical businesses see a reliable return on investment in employee commuter benefits?
Commutes Eat Profits, Just Like Other Major Stressors
Consider Sheila. Each day when she arrives, she lets out a sigh that most people reserve for the end of the day on a Friday. With the whole workday still ahead, however, that sound signifies resignation rather than release — and your bottom line could suffer as a result.
That makes basic sense, but many managers are astonished to find out just how profound the impact can be. As Inc.com reports, one recent study found that adding 20 minutes to your commute makes you as miserable as getting a 19 percent pay cut. "Spending more time standing on a crowded train or sitting in mind-numbing traffic can make you feel just as bad as earning less money," the article states, "even if you aren't." In a compensation-obsessed world, that's saying something.
However, it's also easy to see why this situation arises. One Australian researcher has pioneered the idea of "effective speed," which takes both the cost and time of commuting and displays both in terms of working hours. As explained by Inverse, if you spend 30 minutes in traffic and then spend the first 10 minutes at work earning back the money you just spent on the gas used in that traffic, then your effective travel time was in reality 40 minutes, not 30.
That's a revolutionary concept when we apply it to HR since employees who are even subconsciously aware of this calculation can develop enormous resentments toward employers, without the employers having any idea why.
Organizations Are Experimenting With a Wide Variety of Solutions
Fixing the problem of commute times in an affordable way is much more difficult than simply identifying the problem and its magnitude. That's certainly what JPMorgan Chase found when it partnered with the Ford-owned transit business Chariot to drive some 400 employees to and from its central office in Columbus, Ohio, an initiative reported by Business Wire. This can certainly cut down on the stress of driving or public transit, and it can even turn commute time into productive time thanks to onboard WiFi, but it's hardly the most affordable option.
Less moneyed businesses have been turning to options like car-sharing. Sometimes that means putting together a free or discounted subscription to a general car-sharing service, while others, like Ride, are focused on commuters, specifically. In all cases, these solutions can give employees options. Car-sharing allows employees to save on costs, or to drive only one way and take transit on the ride back home.
On the more extreme side of things, some organizations are even reconsidering their location so they can better accommodate their workforce, as reported by the Vancouver Courier. Especially in the world's most expensive cities, housing costs can drive employees further from the city's downtown business core — and after a while, the collective impact of longer commute-times can increase the costs of staying in the city center until they outweigh the benefits.
Finally, telecommuting or remote work is an increasingly attractive option. Though it might seem like a bit of a cheat, the reality is that keeping workers home altogether is an approach to commuting — just one in which the costs of commuting overall outweigh the benefits of having a particular worker in the office that day.
The Upside of Maintaining These Benefits
Prioritizing the commute within the overall project to reduce costs isn't just about minimizing negative impacts, however. Maybe the simplest benefit of a widely used employee commuter system, especially for large organizations, is the ability to simply forget about parking woes. Through construction, permits, security and more, parking can be an enormous drain on the business coffers — but what if only executives, gear-heads and the chronically late actually drove their own car to work?
Also note that in the above example of Chariot and JPMorgan Chase, the investment bank was also meeting an environmental goal by reducing the carbon footprint of its workforce. Commuter benefits can often help with regulatory compliance powerfully enough to justify the cost.
Commuter benefits are among the trendiest and most value-adding in the labor market today, especially with the millennial sub-group. Make sure to look at the onboarding process and consider: Could a more generous benefits package pay for itself in better hires and reduced spending on more conventional forms of compensation? This calculation should also include the impact of employee retention, and the costs of replacing and retraining a worker who leaves because the stress, cost or sheer time of their commute is too great to handle.
In the wake of falling corporate tax rates, some lawmakers have moved to reduce the federal incentives for businesses to invest in commuter benefits, as noted by the Washington Post. On the other hand, there are also lawmakers who want to see subsidies for personal vehicles go the way of the dodo, which can mean even greater parking costs and even greater potential savings with a more efficient system of transit.
This means that, more and more, the burden for this employee service will fall exclusively on the employer. Each employer should, therefore, understand exactly how much money their workforce's commute is costing them, considering such factors as time, efficiency, enthusiasm, talent, fees, compliance and even PR. With that understanding, businesses should be able to make effective investments in commuter benefits that can be essentially revenue neutral.
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