Recently a poll appeared on my LinkedIn feed. The question asked, “How many hours per day would you be willing to commute for the right job?” The average response was 1 to 2 hours, each way, and most of the respondents said they currently do this.
The question ate at my core — mainly because the answer I would give, and hope everyone would give, is “the least amount possible.” (I kept that to myself and didn’t respond to the poll.) In fact, excessive commuting time is one of the main reasons I left the corporate world and became self-employed over eight years ago. It is important to qualify here that the above poll is likely to have been referring to commute times for corporate jobs, and not for social work or field jobs where there may a different set of motivation and requirements for making the long commute.
So why are people willing to tolerate so much time commuting to and from work? Is it really because they have the perfect job, or is it something else? When I started my first full-time corporate job in 1994 I was commuting on the notorious I-80 “Bay Bridge corridor” from Hercules to Emeryville, CA. Back then the drive would take 30 minutes on average, up to an hour if there was an accident. I loved Friday mornings where I could get to work in 15 minutes in very light traffic. Over the nearly 25 years since then the traffic on that stretch of freeway has coagulated into a literal round-the-clock bottleneck. The average time to make that drive before 9am is well over an hour; and can be nearly two hours on the return journey. I remember about one-third of the people I worked with who drove in from further distances would shift their schedules by an hour or two to “beat the traffic.” In 2017 even this strategy is virtually impossible, with most freeways in the SF Bay Area freeway, if not all major metropolitan cities, grinding to a crawl as early as 5am and 3pm. While public transportation may give you more predictable commute times, the overall journey is not significantly less in time or expense, and arguably becoming more uncomfortable as trains and busses are jam packed with commuters.
I left the full-time corporate workforce because I felt I was being sold a crappy value proposition by the companies I worked for. In essence they were saying ‘give us the majority of your time while you are young and able, for possible wealth and freedom when you are old and disabled.’
The notion of “work-life” balance was a corporate HR ploy to get you “on board”, just like fully-stocked lunchrooms and on-site gyms. I once performed a back-of-the-envelope calculation in an HR managers office to illustrate the point to her that I just couldn’t accept their employment offer: A typical person is awake 16 hours of the day; at 8 hours in the office, plus 2 hours getting to and from, and add in 1 hour (at least) of ‘being digitally connected’ to work outside of work, leaves you with 5 hours — of which you spend at least an hour getting ready for work. So a mere four waking hours to yourself per weekday to tend to life — your spouse, children, other family, friends, exercise, errands and so forth. Is that work-life balance? It seems more like corporations having their finger on the scale.
Yet despite the glaring inequity, and even in the face of obesity, back pain, declining physical and mental health, an overwhelming number of people in America accept this value proposition. Why?
I am certain the answer is that most of us are unsure, if not afraid, of how to change the situation.
I know I was — but eventually I tipped the scales, as have many of my former colleagues, and here’s how we did it.
The answer is self confidence, and self confidence comes from knowing your value to a corporation. You are a resource to a company — a human resource as they would call it — and as with any resource, you are only there because you ultimately will create more value than you cost. Think about it — CEO’s are paid millions of dollars because they are expected to generate hundreds of millions. Even at the lowest end of the totem pole, a line worker is, in my estimate, worth at least twice as much as their compensation. An employee making $100k is generating a minimum of $200k in value for their company.
Since the advent of the concepts of ‘knowledge work’ and the ‘FTE’ corporations have only exploited the value a salaried individual represents to their business. By offering you on-site meals, gyms, dentistry, dry-cleaning, and even giving you the latest iPhones they are attempting to cut in on that limited four hours of time you have to yourself. And they are succeeding. This corporate indenturing is further solidified by the illusion of ‘PTO’ where sick days are eliminated and rolled simply into ‘paid time off’ which then is marketed to you as “4 weeks of paid vacation!”
Having self-confidence from knowing your ultimate value to the company is how you shift the bargain in your favor, or at least to something more equitable. If you have been working in good-standing at a company, or are in the process of negotiating a job offer, you need to ask yourself what value do you place on your outside-of-work time? On your health? On your family? On your life.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Approach your employer with this proposition: “In the interest of better work-life balance, which you say is a core value here, I want to change my work schedule as follows: I will be on-site three days a week, I will be accessible via email, phone, etc. the other two days. You know the quality of work I deliver, and that will not change. You also know that much of the work I do is administrative and can be done remotely. “
It really is as simple as that.
In as many as a half-dozen times where I have made this offer, it has never resulted in the company letting me go — remember, you’re too valuable to them and there is quite a bit of room in that 2x, or more, value range for them to move towards your position. You may have to move some chips on the table to reach an acceptable deal. In negotiating a new job, where I knew I was the best candidate, I have offered to give up stock options and even take reduced bonuses in exchange for less on-site hours. In one scenario where the job was two-hours away, after I knew the company needed me, I offered to take 70% of the salary in exchange for only being on site two days per week.
When negotiating work offers I am usually quick to push stock options back across the table to get what I want instead. In all the companies I have worked for over the past 25 years that have issued stock options, only one paid-off after the 5 year vesting period. Options are a gamble that are unlikely to ever pay out in your favor — the time value of your time is worth far more today than possible money in the future.
Commute times are not changing, and are not likely to get any better over the rest of your career. The solution is not leaving the house earlier, wider freeways, or driver-less cars. The only answer is changing the work-life balance such that the next LinkedIn poll question is “as a company, how much time are you willing to give back to an individual to hire and keep the right employee?”