The workers taking on new 'super commutes'
Before, it was generally top-level executives who lived ‘super-commuting’ lives. Now, more and more workers are embracing the idea.
In September 2021, product marketing manager Blaine Bassett moved from San Francisco to scenic Lake Tahoe, 300km (186mi) away on the California-Nevada border. He wanted “to take advantage of what was predicted to be a once-in-a-lifetime winter”, he says. "Tahoe was expecting record snowfall this year; in fact, the mountain got 17 feet of snow in December. I wanted to be here to take advantage of a ton of days to snowboard and snowshoe, a new hobby I picked up this winter."
At the time, his San Francisco-based employer, travel and expense-management company TripActions, was still operating remotely; he figured it was only a matter of time before things reverted to pre-pandemic norms, so he considered the move temporary.
Seven months later, however, Bassett is still living in Lake Tahoe, even as his company has started calling staff back to the office, a four-hour drive away. That means for Bassett, a once-daily commute is being replaced with a less frequent – but much longer – one. It’s called a ‘super commute’: defined as a commute that takes 90 minutes or longer one-way.
“As you can imagine, [it] takes a bit of planning,” says Bassett, who travels two or three times a month by car from his home to his company’s headquarters. He can’t go into the office at a moment’s notice anymore, and has to “check traffic times well in advance, leave at the crack of dawn and try to cram as many in-person meetings into the day as possible. I frequently spend the night with friends or at a hotel so I can get two days in the office out of the commute”.
But the long-distance trek and increased costs are worth it, since he’s able to keep living in Lake Tahoe, working remotely the rest of the month. “When I need a break or I have a one-on-one,” he says, “I take calls while walking in the redwood forests, or down at the lake.”
Super-commuters aren’t a new phenomenon. In sprawling countries like the US, for example, some workers, mainly senior executives, have been commuting long distances for years. But the pandemic has increased this phenomenon, as more people shift to an employment model that combines remote work and occasional visits to the office. Could this new form of commuting be the future, as workers embrace hybrid, and build lives further away from urban hubs?
The new super-commuters
Historically, the workers doing these kinds of long-haul commutes have had certain things in common; they were often very senior or wealthy knowledge workers in spheres like tech, who were allowed to live far away and come in sparsely, sometimes even by commuter flight services.
But now, super-commuting is evolving into something a bit different. Remote work has become far more normalised, even in sectors where it was rare pre-pandemic. It’s common across more levels of the workforce; employees well below the C-suite now expect to work more flexibly. Many companies are responding by allowing a far wider range of employees to request working conditions that suit their personal circumstances.
For some people, that means living far from the office, potentially somewhere cheaper, and working a hybrid schedule, combining home working days with visits to the office – whether weekly, monthly or quarterly – via a significantly longer commute. Data suggests many workers think this is a reasonable trade-off; 4.9 million Americans have moved since 2020 because remote work allowed them to do so, while more Australians moved out of major cities in 2021 than at any point in the last two decades.
Some workers may have fallen into super-commuting somewhat by accident. That was the case for Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin, a real estate company with headquarters in Seattle, Washington. In autumn 2020, she and her husband moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin – a tiny resort town of 8,000 people – to be closer to her husband’s family. They’ve been there ever since. “We just decided to stay, we liked it so much,” she says. “I’ve always lived in cities my entire life, and this is my first time living in a rural area. I’m surprised with how much I like it.”
During the pandemic, her office in Seattle (which is 3,200km [1,988mi] away from Lake Geneva) didn’t call staff back in for months. Now that the firm is shifting to a hybrid model, however, she will be expected back there on a quarterly basis. That means she’ll travel to the headquarters for three or four-day stays every three months, with the company footing the bill. “I would have considered [super-commuting] before the pandemic,” says Fairweather. “I just didn't think of it as a real option.”
The group of super-commuters has expanded as companies have allowed middle-class knowledge workers to come into the office two days a week, or one week a month – Robert Pozen
Other workers, meanwhile, got a taste of super-commuting during the pandemic, and are looking for opportunities that would allow them to continue that lifestyle – despite the logistical challenges.
“I am actually interviewing in places that have a hybrid policy for permanent roles, meaning two to three times [per week] in the office in London,” says freelance creative strategist Alex Totaro, who moved from London to Weymouth, Dorset, 200km (124mi) away in the southern part of the UK, last year. “I am currently weighing all options.”
When Totaro moved to Weymouth, he was employed by a London-based company that had gone remote, but hadn’t announced whether it was going to be permanent or not. “They kept extending it as many companies did, and I decided the gamble [of moving] was worth it, considering it was somewhere on the train line that, despite the three-plus-hour journey, would still be doable,” he says.
After he went freelance and a contract job called him back to London, he super-commuted in for about six weeks, enjoying the access to the big city while still living someplace cheaper. Since he went freelance late last year, he’s been looking for job opportunities that would allow him the same combination of city-based work and rural living. “I am still considering super-commuting both from a financial point of view, as well as quality of life,” he says. “London rent has gotten extremely expensive.”
Bassett echoes that sentiment: “I got really tired of living in a major city, San Francisco, during the pandemic,” he says. And for him, living further away but still having to come into the office, isn’t so bad. The extra-long commute means he can “enjoy the time as I get to catch up with old friends, listen to podcasts and focus on work problems that need extra time or thought”.
Is this the future?
Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, says the evolution of the hybrid workplace means that new-style super-commuting is here to stay. “The super-commuters are mainly knowledge professionals who don't have to be physically present every day – that’s about half the workers in the US,” he points out.
Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Texas, says it’s likely that super-commuters who commute between states “work at higher-level jobs — not at the very top, but higher up”. But Pozen believes that more people will be able to super-commute as hybrid gets more entrenched. “The group of super-commuters has expanded as companies have allowed middle-class knowledge workers to come into the office two days a week, or one week a month,” he says.
Fulton points out it’s not all plain sailing. “Companies want their workers, especially the supervisors, in the office on a regular basis – maybe not five days a week, but more than once a month. So, there’s a lot of tension right now between those who want to commute long distances very occasionally – whether it’s 90 miles by car or 500 miles by plane – and employers who want them close.”
Bassett acknowledges his new work model comes with challenges, too. “There are definitely cons to living far away from the office. I’m hardly ever at the office for company happy hours, there is no longer ‘water cooler talk’,” he says. “Meetings are now much more intentional, building team culture is a bit harder than it used to be and it’s tiring being in the car so much.”
Yet none of this is enough to deter him. “Super-commuting is something that I’d like to keep doing,” says Bassett, who enjoys the more local and eco-friendly flavour of Lake Tahoe. “I imagine myself going fully remote in the future, and living even farther away from the office.”
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