Darren Murph really, really hated his commute.
Every other day, he would drag himself out of bed before dawn, climb into his Jeep Grand Cherokee, switch on sports radio, and make the arduous 90-minute trek to the office in stop-and-go traffic. There, working as a supply chain analyst, he would scrutinize Excel spreadsheets and field over-the-cubicle wall questions that could have been emails. And then he would make the 90-minute return trip home in the evening.
He was well aware that his physical presence in the office was pointless, even counter-productive. But it was during those commutes, in particular, that he had the feeling he was being robbed of something precious.
"I love driving, I love automobiles, and I love sports radio," he told me recently, "but I love enjoying them on my terms."
Today, Murph is one of the most vocal and visible cheerleaders for remote work. In 2015, he published Living the Remote Dream: A Guide to Seeing the World, Setting Records, and Advancing Your Career. He serves as GitLab's Head of Remote — seemingly the first in the world to assume such a title with a major company — but he is more widely known as a guru of all things remote, an all-round evangelist for work-life balance with an emphasis on "life."
Thirteen years later, Murph has never forgotten the existential pain and pointlessness of his commute. It's partly why he can speak so passionately about the value of reclaiming that lost time.
"It can really rock your world to realize how little time we all really have left. Do I want to spend those precious hours commuting?"
"Tens of millions of people now have more say over how they spend their hours of their day," he added. "If tens of millions of people point their recaptured commute time in the direction of what matters to them, we as a society could do great things."
According to a September 2020 study by Jose Maria Barrero, Nick Bloom and Steven J. Davis, American remote workers were collectively recapturing more than 60 million hours per workday that had previously been spent on commuting.
To put that in perspective, that's 16.3 billion hours — or 1.9 million years — previously squandered, or surrendered, on the highway or the subway, being reclaimed by remote workers in a year.
Add to that the fact that remote workers, especially those working asynchronously, generally have more control over their workday schedules than ever before, and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of this development.
For Murph, who for years has been doing his darnedest to inspire individuals to rearchitect their work lives, this is a total game changer, part of what he has called the greatest transfer in workplace power in our lifetimes.
Murph has been asked if advocating for remote work is somehow insensitive to the majority of workers who have no choice but to commute and work on-site. (According to Gallup, 45 percent of full-time U.S. employees were working from home either all or part of the time in September, with 55% working on-site.)
Quite the opposite, as Murph explains: remote work improves the lot of on-site workers too.
"Remote work means fewer people on the roads, on transit, few people competing for fewer resources," he said. "I've heard from people have onsite roles — painters, plumbers, people that have to physically go to a site to do this work. They're begging remote workers to keep working remote, to not drive back to the office. Their commute time, their whole quality of life, has greatly improved over the past two years."
Murph also has a response to those workers who claim to like the colossal time-suck of their commute.
The ritual of the commute "[s]lows us down," Ezra Bookman, a Brooklyn based corporate-ritual designer told The Atlantic. “They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.”
Spanx CEO Sara Blakely purports to enjoy commuting so much she created a "fake commute" to her company headquarters.
As many have realized, the ritual of the commute does create a useful psychological separation between one's personal life and one's work life. For employees whose current commute is a few steps from the bedroom to the living room, the blurriness of the work-life boundary can be a real problem.
But, as Murph explains, to feel nostalgia or warm feelings towards the commute itself is misguided, and demonstrates a woeful lack of imagination.
"There is immense value in creating on-ramps and off-ramps in your mind to delineate between work and life," he said. "This process requires intentionality, and can be accomplished via a diverse array of mechanisms. Commuting is one, but it is by far the worst forcing function of the bunch.
"It's as simple as creating a calendar block where your commute used to be and selecting something more fulfilling for that time. Perhaps it's reading, resting, video games, volunteering, spending time with family, praying, or even taking your vehicle out for a spin on your own terms."
So where did all that commuting time actually go?
According to Barrero, Bloom and Davis, Americans devoted about a third of their recaptured time back to their primary jobs, with nearly 10% of time savings going to a second job.
But Murph is hopeful that, perhaps when the ongoing pandemic recedes, more workers will tap into that recaptured time in other ways.
"If you are replacing your commute with more work, that's a sign that you need to be more intentional with your own schedule. If you save four hours a day by not commuting, don't take three and a half and then go back to work. That is your time. You're a human being — do something human with your time."
That time could even be spent making a real difference in the world.
Murph and his wife became adoptive parents at the end of 2018. Adoption in the U.S. is a long and complicated process; for Murph, not being tethered to a 9-to-5 workday helped considerably. "There were a lot of steps in that journey that were made easier by the freedom and flexibility of a remote schedule," he said. "I think about the tens of millions of people who now have more intentionality as to how they spend their hours of their day. If they have felt called to fostering or adopting, but they thought it just didn't fit into the rigidity of their work schedule, now they can do that. With no additional investment, no additional infrastructure, no additional lobbying. Society at large could solve the orphan crisis in a couple of years, maybe even sooner, if people were galvanized towards it."
The orphan crisis is an issue near and dear to Murph's heart.
"What other crises exist in the world could be solved if people had more time to do what matters to them?"
He added, "It's no longer just about living your own personal remote dream. It's about, What can you do as a community?"
In Murph's view, it's not just recaptured commuting time that could be harnessed and employed more meaningfully. Remote companies are uniquely placed to tap into "company culture" time to get workers involved in their respective communities.
"Instead of getting everybody together for a Zoom happy hour, that time could be much better spent by deploying everyone into their own communities," he said, "getting them to spend that hour doing something meaningful to them."
It's an idea that's "even more beautiful" at scale, explains Murph, with larger and more distributed teams. "If you have 10 people all going out to various neighborhoods in New York, that's awesome. But imagine if you have people all over the world contributing to their communities.
"Everyone wears their company swag and takes a selfie. You can create a mechanism so that it's all shared back in the workplace, maybe at next week's meeting or stand-up."
A company-wide commitment to community involvement benefits the wider world, of course. It's great for the company too, a way for far-flung colleagues to enjoy a renewed sense of connectedness and purpose, and collaborate on a common (non-work-related) objective.
As Murph admits, it's a broadening of the definition of "company culture" that will require real and concerted effort. "But the impact could be just amazing."
Murph and I spoke last year, prior to the emergence of Omicron, when big companies were pledging to keep their latest return-to-office dates.
"I've been surprised by how many organizations are still underestimating the significance of this change," Murph told me. "Two years in, there are still organizations who think, oh, we'll just snap back to the way things were. We'll just send an email and we'll demand that everybody show up to the office."
But Murph believes that, now that workers have experienced what it's like to have more control over how they spend their time, there'll absolutely be no going back to the old normal.
"Institutional power is not easily relinquished," he admits, "but individual freedoms are even harder to roll back. Now that tens of millions of people have had these individual freedoms given to them, they're not gonna give them up easily. And if their current employer doesn't accept that, there are a lot of organizations that will take them."