The Distance Factor…
…Becomes relevant again with our professional life slowly getting back to business as usual mode
It was Halloween week. I happened to be in the United States on work, and an American colleague had invited me over to his family home for dinner. By the time things got over it was pretty late. Since his place was in a distant suburb, and I was staying very close to the city center, he offered to drive me to my hotel. It’s a sweet gesture, one that was accepted with a sense of gratitude.
On the way back we crossed his office. It was a lot closer to the hotel I was staying in. It also surprised me a bit, considering the fact that I had all along assumed the makeshift setting we were working out of, to be his office. The building we had just driven past was too far from his suburban home.
I asked him if it was difficult driving to work every day. It’s an understatement, rather a very stupid question. His initial response was a sarcastic smile. He was albeit generous enough to explain to me that the place I had just visited was his ancestral home, where he (and his family) had lived all along and there were no plans to vacate it, the fact that his workplace was far off notwithstanding.
His explanation, as also his predicament, got me thinking. I didn’t have any emotional attachment to any house per se, yet I was living in a place far from my workplace.
In fact, I have never had the luxury of working in my native place, or getting to stay at my family home on days that weren’t part of a planned (or unplanned) vacation. Blame it on ambition, lack of appropriate opportunities, or the availability of better alternatives. My professional career has ensured growth, alright, but it has come at the cost of stability.
So far I have always worked out of big cities, ones that don’t offer too many alternatives when it comes to residential preferences. Over the years I have come to believe that property prices are directly proportional to the size of the city as well as the estimated influx of people. As such, in any big city that you opt to work out of, there are only two choices on offer.
The first option is to fork out a sizeable sum — to either buy or rent a property as close to the office as possible, thereby avoiding the distance factor, that disgusting thing called traffic, and the resultant chaos to an extent. The other solution lies in opting to stay in a distant suburb, paying a comparatively lesser amount and tweaking your life as per daily travel requirements.
For someone who believes that lengthy travel time results in physical and mental fatigue that affects work per se, I have a tendency to look at the most convenient option. Besides, having jobs that involve a lot of traveling also has had a significant influence over my decision-making as regards this aspect.
Over the course of my professional career, I have been perennially on the move, on official assignments and for client interactions. Quite a few of these business trips were actually half-day affairs, straddling cities. In such scenarios, one is forced to first board red-eye flights and then take a return flight on the same evening, the timing of the latter depending on the work at hand.
While three to four hours are spent airborne, if one adds the total distance traveled — including to and from the airport, waiting for the flight, at work and getting back home, then not only there is an overall increase in the time factor but also the resulting fatigue. I am yet to forget those desperate attempts at staying awake, and the additional cups of coffee. Truth be told, your age notwithstanding, it takes a couple of days in the least to recover from these half-day trips. If they are scheduled back-to-back…well, get the drift.
As such, at the start of my professional career, I had rented accommodation closer to my workplace, palpably to cut down on travel time. The dependence on public transport was as such limited, and there was always a plethora of options available in case I decided against driving to work. The tactic continued in the initial years, even with a change of landscape, and worked wonderfully well for me.
In those fledgling years, I remember this colleague who opted to rent a place in a distant suburb (some 40 miles away), in a bid to save a few dollars. To commute to work he had to solely rely on suburban trains, and they were only a few of them each way. In the event of him missing out on any of the return trains, he had no alternative but to stay at the office for the night. In a bid to save money he had completely negated the distance factor, and paid for it with sleepless nights more often than not. I had a sense of satisfaction when my approach inspired him to stay close to his workplace.
The distance factor is something I kept in mind even when I acquired a property of my own. Things went hunky dory for some time before a change of cities disrupted the normalcy. Soon after moving in I realized staying closer to the office was not a feasible option in the long run. The property rates were astoundingly high and being only concerned with the distance would have left me with a big hole in the pocket.
Keeping this in mind, I rented a beautiful little place in the suburbs. The hitherto non-existing aspect of driving long distances to work soon became a daily routine. It was 20 miles one way, depending on the route I preferred on a given day.
There were three alternatives to choose from, in terms of the route, and it was all about making the right anticipation. If my decision was good I would traverse that considerably long distance with relative ease, the traffic-related delays being kept to a minimum. Else, it took more than 90 minutes, or more, depending on the traffic. Not to forget the physical fatigue. It was not long before I got used to the traveling aspect.
That being said, my American colleague had got me thinking. While taking a drastic decision was out of the question I made up my mind to stay as close to the office as possible in the event of a change of location. And that’s exactly what I did a couple of years later. It takes me about 10 minutes to travel to work in my current setting.
Why am I discussing about the distance factor now, you may wonder. These are different times after all. Things are not how they used to be. A virus has ensured wholesale changes to our personal, social and professional lives. At the conceptual level Work From Home (WFH) is such a relief. Isn’t it?
WFH has ensured a certain comfort for the working professional. It negates the distance factor altogether. It is all about convenience. There are multiple media reports and surveys that indicate a majority of the people prefer this option vis-à-vis traveling to work on a day-to-day basis. There are also reports that suggest many people are resigning in order to avoid going to the office. Consequently, many companies are having to deal with a shortage of staff.
However, there’s a flip side as well. While WFH has definitely come up as a viable short-term solution, in the long term it seems anything but pragmatic. Whether one accepts it or not WFH has the tendency to induce complacency. Deferring work may not yet be the norm but its possibility cannot be denied. If there are kids in the house…obviously you cannot blame them for disturbing you at work.
From a managerial standpoint, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep tabs on the activities of the team members. Having meetings over Microsoft Teams or Zoom isn’t the same as interacting in an office setup. Virtual isn’t real, neither in terms of the professional commitment nor in the emotional quotient.
Even from a logistics point of view, many companies have been forced to either shut down or change office locations owing to increased rents, rather than paying rent for a property that has little or no staff working on a day to day basis. No wonder many companies are encouraging a hybrid work model, a combination of in-office and remote work in an employee’s schedule, in a bid to encourage their employees to head back to the workplace.
Then there are countries where a 4-day week has been either introduced successfully or is being tried out. Even a 6-hour workday is being debated. These developments indicate a slow but steady return to business as usual mode. As such it is a matter of time before we will be asked to leave the comforts of our respective homes and head back to the office on a permanent basis, just like it was in the pre-virus days.
Traveling to work will no longer be a matter of choice but an absolute necessity. The ‘enforced convenience’ that we have got used to in the last couple of years or so will soon be a thing of the past. The daily routine of heading to the workplace, which not only involved planning but also a bit of fortune, will be something to ponder about again.
All of these elements make the distance factor relevant again. While it is something that can be mitigated to a considerable extent with proper planning, it is not possible to avoid it altogether. In the final analysis, it is a choice that you will have to make as I have already done.