The people have spoken: A bad commute outweighs company mission

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As someone responsible for growing our company, the geographic circle from which I’ve pulled talented candidates has gotten increasingly smaller. A few years ago, it wasn’t unreasonable that I could attract someone to work in my last company’s San Francisco HQ despite their living in the South Bay – even as far down as San Jose. But in recent years, the commute has been a dealbreaker for many candidates; in fact, location is now one of the first topics I address with candidates.

It’s not necessarily because the traffic is worse, the jobs near home have gotten better or because the talent pool in the urban center has improved. It’s simply because employees (especially Millennials) are commute-intolerant. This trend isn’t specific to the Bay Area and startups; it has big implications for the way people search for jobs and choose career paths nation-wide.

Mileage trumps mission

Time spent in traffic has historically been the norm for most workers, but the increasing prominence of remote work options and flexible schedules paired with the preference for dwelling in urban areas among Millennials means that commuting is no longer a given, and it’s no longer a superficial consideration for employees in their job search.

The number of people commuting solo to work is declining overall: In 2013, about 86% of all workers commuted to work by private vehicle, compared to 76% in 2016. And we’ve long known that commutes are a source of stress – in 2017, researchers in England found adding an additional 20 minutes of commuting per day has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19% pay cut. What we didn’t know was where employees and candidates draw the line.

Millennials – who make up the bulk of the active workforce – are demanding flexibility from employers. In a recent study conducted by Udemy, we found that 59% of people say that, in the future, they would not work for a company that did not let them work remotely, and that figure is even higher for Millennials (72%). The normalization of remote work and rising distributed workforces around the globe often means that workers can find great professional opportunities with no commute at all – so why would they pick one that requires 30+ minutes in standstill traffic when it’s so taxing on mental wellbeing, not to mention the environment.

This shift in mentality around commute times is so extreme that people prioritize short commutes over other important work happiness factors. In that same Udemy study, 59% of employees said they would rather have a less fulfilling job than a long commute to a meaningful job. Again, this stat is higher for Millennials, 74% of whom are unwilling to endure the drive time even for more meaningful work.

Creative recruiting in a commute-free world

This attitude shift has completely changed the talent game for companies. Companies and their recruiters are getting creative and making major business decisions in order to attract talent and adapt to these changing expectations. This can take many forms, like:

Commute assistance: Airbnb’s HQ is in the heart of San Francisco, but in a spot where public transit options leave employees struggling to make it door-to-door with ease. To make things easier, the company gives Lyft credits to help employees cover that “last mile” between CalTrain and Bart. I’ve also heard of companies using services like Scoop to financially incentivize employees to carpool, or, if your company has the means, you can rent vans or buses to create vanpools for employees. If you don’t, consider establishing a commuting cohort with other nearby companies to share the cost of vanpools or bus.

Playing with time: Policies that reflect a company’s flexibility when it comes to both time and location of work can help employees deal with nasty traffic a little less. For example, modified workdays, i.e. from 10 am-5 pm or 8 am-3 pm, mean that commuters don’t have to sit in traffic at peak hours, nor lose out or productivity at the office or sacrifice hours at home to make up for lost time (our study also found work/life balance to be the top driver of workplace happiness). Modifying work schedules to allow for one less day of commuting each week (“remote Fridays,” for example) has been an effective way to alleviate the stress of long commutes among teams at Udemy.

More spaces, different places: Company-rating and job-listing site Glassdoor recently moved their operation from Mill Valley to San Francisco to be closer to where their talent lives, and another HR peer of mine shared that her startup has company apartments available for senior engineering leaders who have a longer commute, and other companies offer rent subsidies so people can live closer to the office (usually an incentivizing part of compensation package). Alternatively, purchasing co-working spaces in dense areas where people are commuting from can give teammates the opportunity to work together and engage in your company culture, without braving the highway every day.

Life without a long-haul

Given the surging populations in American cities, commutes aren’t likely to get better anytime soon. Employees will continue to demand policies that help them do their best work and live their best lives, without spending their precious time on the freeway. Ultimately, companies (and the recruiters who work for them) must consider location first and foremost – it speaks volumes about your talent base and the types of employees you’ll attract and retain. If you align your physical presence and your policies with the kind of talent you want to hire, it becomes much easier to avoid losing out applicants because they were deterred by a long drive.