How many companies care about how far their employees live from work? None? Hardly any? On a personal level, managers might be vaguely aware of their employees' respective distances from work, but looking at it from a business standpoint -- as long as they’re showing up for work and making strides -- why should they care?
A messaging company in Palo Alto, CA. called Imo, knows why. The company has been making an effort to reduce the commutes of its 20 employees by offering a $500 housing stipend if they live within a five-mile radius of the building. So far, the incentive has made quite an impact: 18 of them have chosen to relocate.
Upon reading this, I instantly sent the link to three of my coworkers. They had identical responses: “That’s awesome.” But if the perks of living near the office are obvious, wouldn’t people just do it of their own accord? Not necessarily. If it’s cheaper to live 25 minutes away, then people will probably live 25 minutes away. However, with a housing subsidy, it’s easier to see the quantitative benefits of the move.
This is a subject I feel particularly close to, having spent the last three weeks looking to relocate to Minneapolis/St. Paul to be closer to my (and my husband’s) new job. We’d been living frugally across the river in Wisconsin while looking for work, but now we were saddled with a 40-minute commute (or about 1.5 hours through heavy snow). What I found most miserable about the drive was feeling immersed in a stew of everyone-else’s-bad-mood. The frowning girl merging in front of me, the tight-lipped man in my rearview – and everybody in my periphery – compounded the tension.
Now, the problem with complaining about your commute is that, inevitably, you don’t hold the trump card. So suffice it to say that I was very unaccustomed to the length of time we were spending in the car. But we are actively changing that.
All of my other long-term jobs were within a 10 minute bike ride. In particular, one of these routes took me over a pedestrian bridge and scenic river and into downtown. It was an easy jaunt year-round, and I relished it. I even skied to work one Saturday, only to find out when I arrived that my boss had closed up shop due to extreme snowiness. No problem. I just turned back around and was home before I’d worked up a sweat. The best part was that I was embedded in the heart of the community I was writing about, and my contacts list was bursting as I started shopping more locally, meeting more people, and attending more events spontaneously. If I had lived outside of that realm, in the country or the suburbs, my work would have actually suffered.
All of this, I was told by some of my workforce seniors, was a luxury that wouldn’t last.
Nonsense. It all depends on how you view luxuries. Some people view their gym membership as a necessary part of their healthy routine. Companies give incentives for joining the local health club (or money off of their company insurance policy) because they value healthy employees. It’s pretty obvious why employers want their staff to stay healthy: less time spent at the doctor and away from work, more energy to think/create/perform, increased endorphins, and improved confidence.
Incentivizing the short commute is simply another way to promote good health.
In this case, it’s a way to address both physical and mental health. Ensuring your employees have more dispensable time in the morning fosters several healthy habits, one of which may be eating breakfast rather than skipping it (or wolfing down a gas station long john). It’s also an insurance policy against lateness. When there are only two red lights separating you from your workplace, it’s much easier to arrive consistently on time. Lateness obviously amounts to decreased productivity, but it likely affects the quality of work throughout the rest of the day as well. And that tension just resurges later in the day when workers worry about getting home at night due to unpredictable weather or notorious traffic. In short, flustered minds aren't innovative, focused minds.
Is Imo just trying to promote a certain kind of lifestyle? Maybe. Isn't it our right, our freedom to choose how far we live from work? Yes, of course. But I'd venture to guess that of the 20 employees, the two who live much further from work are missing out, whether they know it or not – not to mention their employers, who can reap the rewards of healthier, happier employees.