Extreme Commuting an Extremely Popular Option for Execs

By Gina Ruiz

Dec. 18, 2007

John Maynard’s commute isn’t much different from those of most executives, in that he shuttles from one town to another to get from home to work.

    Except Maynard, CEO of the Employee Assistance Program Association, has spent the past four years shuttling the roughly 1,700 miles between his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, and the 5,000-member association’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

    Maynard is among a new breed of executives who refuse to relocate for their job and instead opt for an alternate arrangement known as extreme commuting, which involves either making a weekly trek by plane or traveling daily by car for more than 90 minutes each way to and from work.

    “When they offered me the job, I said I was interested but that I would not want to relocate,” Maynard recalls. He didn’t want to leave Colorado primarily because of friends and family, but he also likes the lifestyle the Rocky Mountain state has to offer.

    “Many job candidates view relocation as a deal-breaker,” says Jeff Hocking, managing director of Korn/Ferry International’s San Francisco office. Fifty-five percent of the 198 international consultants who participated in the 12th edition of Korn/Ferry’s Executive Recruiter Index say it is more difficult today than it was in the past to persuade candidates to relocate for new job opportunities. Released November 12, the quarterly survey was administered to recruiters within the Americas, the Asia Pacific region, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

    Hocking says the reluctance among candidates to relocate poses a competitive drawback for employers, many of whom are coming up empty searching for qualified talent.

    “There are many hurdles that employers must contend with to get good people in their doors,” he notes. “Unwillingness to relocate makes recruiting trickier.”

    High-profile companies including Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are adopting measures to facilitate extreme commuting, which often entails four-day workweeks, telecommuting and flexible hours.

    Almost 85 percent of the Korn/Ferry survey respondents say companies are at least somewhat open to having executives engaged in frequent traveling instead of relocating—a trend that is strongest among technology companies.

Extreme commuting not for everyone
The hourlong Monday morning flights from San Diego to the Bay Area are filled with extreme commuters who don’t want to leave their little corner of paradise but still want to work for a prestigious Silicon Valley employer. Many commuters are high-powered sales executives, Hocking notes.

    This does not come as a surprise, as certain positions lend themselves to extreme commuting more than others—a factor companies should consider when recruiting and hiring, Hocking adds.

    “Employees who already do extensive traveling, such as sales executives, don’t need to be anchored in a particular city. For them, the face time that counts is the kind that’s spent in front of clients,” he explains.

    Other positions require deeper interaction with colleagues, which could mean the flexibilities that are often intertwined with extreme commuting—such as working from home or condensing the workweek—could hamper their activities.

    Whether an employer allows extreme commuting could depend on the type of corporate culture a company wants to foster, says Mark Stiffler, CEO of Chester, Pennsylvania-based Synygy, which specializes in compensation-related performance management.

    Synygy recently ended a company policy that facilitated extreme commuting. Some 25 of its 450 employees had been allowed to work from home up to two days per week, depending on the length of their commute.

    “It became evident that the initiative was not in sync with our core value of harnessing a strong team dynamic,” Stiffler says. “It’s disruptive to have people out of the office.”

    Stiffler, however, isn’t writing off extreme commuting altogether.

    “There are some instances that don’t require a daily presence,” he says.

    Regardless of whether extreme commuters are working from the office or utilizing a flexible schedule, Stiffler says ground rules need to be established.

    For one, there should always be transparency about where the extreme commuter will be on a given day.

    “This way, even when they’re not in the office, everyone knows how to get in touch with them,” Stiffler explains. In addition, he says it is important for employees who are often on the road to be consistent about their phone manner. “They should always answer the phone with a professional greeting and be ready to reply swiftly to clients.”

Keeping track of extreme commuters
   Since extreme commuters are often out of the direct eye of supervisors, it behooves employers to develop guidelines that ensure they are complying with their jobs properly, experts say.

    One good habit—useful not just for extreme commuters but for managing talent across the board—is for employers to determine how a specific position contributes to the overall success of a company.

    “Everyone plays a part in helping companies reach their objectives, from the receptionist to the CEO,” Stiffler says.

    It’s important for companies to have a clear picture of what an individual’s direct contribution will be, because only then will they be able to accurately assess how an employee is performing.

    In some cases this undertaking is fairly straightforward. The performance of a sales executive is closely tied to the dollar amount brought in during a given period of time, Stiffler explains. Other situations, however, are trickier because they may not be aligned with an identifiable metric.

    Regardless of how an employer chooses to evaluate performance, it needs to be conveyed clearly, Hocking says.

    “Extreme commuters are like every other employee,” he says. “They should be measured on their individual contributions to the company.”

The burnout factor
   “Extreme commuting is not for the faint of heart,” Hocking says. Yet, some 70 percent of participants in the Korn/Ferry survey say executives are increasingly open to extreme commuting.

    They choose a transient lifestyle for particular reasons. Family ties were cited as the primary factor, according to the study. Hocking says this is not surprising, considering that many executives happen to be at an age range—40 to 55—where they are married and have children.

    “It is a function of the demographic that’s in question.” he notes. “Rather than to uproot a working spouse from professional commitments or to go through the tricky process of transferring a child from school, extreme commuting is winning out.”

    Other factors besides family come into play. Lifestyle and housing market costs also influence extreme commuting, the Korn/Ferry report indicates.

    Whatever the reason for choosing extreme commuting instead of relocation, being on the road often takes a toll on workers, ultimately threatening productivity and adversely affecting retention.

    Jen Cassidy, a sales analyst for Universal Music, spent almost a year commuting 50 miles from Costa Mesa to Burbank, California. The trek took anywhere from 90 minutes to 2½ hours each way. She logged some 28,000 miles in her Honda Civic and spent about $4,200 on gas during that time.

    “You get to a point where you wonder; is this job even worth all the hassle?” Cassidy says.

    Despite rising by 5:45 every morning, she was almost always late because of traffic.

    “I would show up to morning meetings all flustered,” she says. “It was so frustrating because I had done the responsible thing by waking up early, but the road was always a nightmare.”

    The commute drained her energy and affected her attitude.

    But that changed November 1, when she relocated three miles away from work and reduced her commute time to nine minutes. Cassidy says her productivity has surged and that she is more engaged in her work.

    “I come in on time every morning,” she notes. “I’m much more willing to stay overtime if I need to.”

    Not all tales of extreme commuting conclude like Cassidy’s. The burnout sometimes leads directly to turnover, says Maynard, who makes at least one trip a month to the Employee Assistance Program Association’s Arlington headquarters and spends about 10 days at the office. The rest of the time he is either on business trips or working from home in Colorado.

    In the instances where an extreme commuter remains with a company, the physical fatigue often affects productivity. Consequently it behooves companies to make special considerations for extreme commuters, Maynard explains.

    He suggests that employers adopt an aggressive flextime policy. Depending on the position, an employee doesn’t have to work during the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Allowing extreme commuters to come as early as 6 a.m. or as late as 10 a.m. significantly helps cut the amount of time they spend in rush hour traffic.

    Maynard urges employers to be creative and open-minded when it comes to extreme commuters.

    “You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve,” he says.

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