Between home and work: Commuting as an opportunity for role transitions

By: Julia Lee Cunningham, Jon M. Jachimowicz, Bradley R. Staats, Jochen I. Menges, Francesca Gino

Jachimowicz, Jon M., Julia J. Lee, Bradley R. Staats, Jochen I. Menges, and Francesca Gino. "Between Home and Work: Commuting as an Opportunity for Role Transitions." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 16-077, January 2016. (Revised August 2018.)


Across the globe, people commute an average of 38 minutes each way. Several large-scale surveys indicate that lengthy commutes decrease job satisfaction and increase turnover. Despite the prominence of commuting in everyday life, little is known about why commuting is so aversive, who is most affected by the commuting experience, when people are particularly affected, and how people could better cope with lengthy commutes. Integrating theories of boundary work, self-control, and work-family conflict, we propose that commutes serve as transitions between home and work roles. Because employees hold no defined role during their commute, lengthy commutes keep employees in limbo between their home and work roles for longer, which gives rise to aversively experienced role ambiguity. Across three studies, including a field study and a four-week-long intervention study, we find that lengthy morning commutes are more aversive for employees with lower trait self-control and greater work-family conflict, leading to decreased job satisfaction and increased turnover. In addition, we find that employees who engage in role-clarifying prospection—role-related thoughts about their upcoming (work) role—are less likely to be negatively affected by lengthy commutes to work. Employees with higher levels of trait self-control are more likely to engage in role-clarifying prospection, and employees who experience higher levels of work-family conflict are more likely to benefit from role-clarifying prospection. Therefore, although commuting is typically seen as an undesirable part of the workday, our theory and results point to the benefits of using it as an opportunity for transitioning into a different role.