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Marchetti’s Constant: Why Reducing Commutes Increases Productivity

CoAdvantage- Marchetti’s Constant, named for Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, is a principle that says workers will average an hour of commute time daily (half an hour each way).

According to this principle, if a worker takes a new job or the circumstances of an existing job change to extend the necessary commute, workers will generally then make personal life adjustments until they are once again spending about an hour commuting each day. Transportation engineer Yacov Zahavi suggests this is because people have a stable (and sometimes unconscious) “travel time budget” of only about an hour a day that they are willing to spend on commuting.

What does this have to do with productivity? Well, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it might be the engine behind “the biggest productivity increase of the century.”

How commutes affect productivity

The expansion of work from home (WFH) programs in 2020, when the pandemic first struck, doubled the number of employees working remotely from 26% to 50% through the 4th Quarter of 2020. Further, workers saw their average work day increase by 8.2% (or 48.5 minutes) on average, according to a Harvard Business School study.

The WEF seems to believe that employees simply replaced most of their normal commute time with additional work time. In other words, they reallocated most of their “travel time budget” back into work rather than into personal time. That has potentially huge implications for workforce productivity: “If working from home eliminated an hour of commuting, without changing time spent on work or reducing production, the result would be equivalent to a 13% increase in productivity (assuming a 38-hour working work).”

It’s likely not all productivity

However, not all that workday increase likely went into genuine productivity gains. The sudden widespread shift into remote working required numerous adjustments that probably left employees spending more time each day just to get their normal work done. For example, a study from Harvard and New York University found that the number and length of daily meetings increased significantly after lockdown and quarantine protocols were enacted, when compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Still, the reduction or elimination of commutes likely helped to keep productivity up

Even if the elimination of commutes doesn’t translate directly to increased productivity, it undoubtedly helped workers who otherwise might have fallen behind in their normal work obligations. That extra time may have enabled them to juggle pandemic-related concerns, such as handling childcare and household duties, and still get their normal work done.

And that brings us back to Marchetti’s Constant. If it’s true that workers, on average, gravitate toward an allowance of an hour a day that can be repurposed when commutes are eliminated or reduced, the elimination of commutes during WFH protocols might have played a key role in maintaining and, in some cases, increasing overall worker productivity.

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