On the Way Out? Commute Fatigue

I originally included this tenth telltale sign in the category of “complaining.”  As I set to write about “complaining,” however, I realized that commute fatigue was really a completely different animal, and one that may often represent your earliest warning that a valued employee might be “On the Way Out.”

My first experience with commute fatigue came when I worked in California.  There I had a top-notch manager working for me that I desperately wanted to keep in the company long term.  The only problem was that she had a ninety minute commute each way.  Over time, I watched as the killer commute (made worse by the horrific traffic that sometimes plagued Southern California) took its toll, slowly grinding down her enthusiasm and commitment to the job.

Predictably, she eventually quit and moved on to a position where she was closer to home and her family.

Professional jobs, while not as physically exhausting as manual labor, can take a lot out of an employee, and managerial positions even more so.  Your best employees are likely to work beyond a simple, 8 hour day, which makes time lost to commuting even more painful.  I normally worked ten hour days while in Corporate America, and I knew plenty of people that stayed longer.  When you tack a couple of additional hours behind the wheel, it begins to wear an employee down.

This is where people that travel extensively typically say:  “Long commuters just need to ‘suck it up.’  I’m traveling (take your pick of percentages – 30%, 50%, 70% -- a number that is often grossly exaggerated) of the time, and you don’t see me complaining.”

Quite frankly, it isn’t the same thing.  Business travel is event driven.  You know the trip will eventually be over and things will return “normal.”  For commuters, this is their normal.  There is no escape, no break.  And people don’t normally travel while trying to juggle the requirements of daily living.  There is no sweating to get to the daycare in time to pick up a child, or figuring out how to get to that doctor’s appointment – the business traveler simply plans those things around their trips.  The long commuter has limited alternative ways to get things done.

One of my favorite direct subordinates ended up in a long-distance commuting situation.  He lived in a distant state, where we set him up in an office, and traveled to our facilities every other week.  Not only was this arrangement expensive, it was exhausting for the manager.  Unfortunately, his job wasn’t of the type that would have allowed him to be permanently located at his home.  It was an arrangement that we eventually realized couldn’t last.  Personal reasons prevented him from relocating, and ultimately we parted ways, much to my chagrin.

Most employees can handle a long commute for a time, and a few can do it for an extended period.  In my experience, however, the odds are stacked strongly against the arrangement lasting.  I’m aware of only a few, rare instances where an employee has ground it out for five years or more.  In most cases, fatigue seems to set in after one to two years – the longer the drive, the faster – and departure comes soon thereafter.

I was once able to hire away a high level manager from another company because he ached to shorten his commute (which was 75 minutes, one way).  He took a job working for me that paid close to ten percent less just because of the reduction in windshield time.  When I interviewed him, the long commute was the primary driver behind his job search.

I have no personal experience with commutes via bus or rail, but suspect a longer commute is more sustainable when you’re not consumed by operating a vehicle during the entire trip.  Doesn’t a train commute provide some much-needed downtime that you just don’t have when dealing with rush hour traffic?

Perhaps you will be satisfied with hanging onto an employee for only a year or two.  That has been true in a few jobs I’ve filled, primarily ones that were project-driven hires.  Under those circumstances, I wouldn’t worry about the length of commute an employee has in front of her.

Otherwise I recommend you carefully question an employee with a commute greater than sixty minutes, and reject those with commutes of seventy-five minutes or more (adjusting slightly for the region – raising the time limits slightly in places like California, and reducing them slightly for the Midwest.)  And I wouldn’t accept a “promise to move” as a substitute – I’ve seen such promises fail to be fulfilled more often than not.

If you already have an employee with a long commute, particularly a highly valued one, you should stay close to that person, regularly asking about the lost time and how he is holding up.  Be prepared to read body language and listen to comments passed along by peers as employees will usually tell you everything is “fine.”  Until it isn’t, that is.

You should probably accept the fact that your long-commuting employee will eventually leave your employ no matter what accommodations you make.  And it is most likely to happen when the pressure is intense and you can afford it the least.  If you properly prepare, it can at least soften the pain you’ll experience when your long-commuter is “On the Way Out.”

Other Posts in this Series:

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.