The Commuters Comfort Zone

Communicating at Railway stationJanuary has not been a good month for thousands of commuters. With strikes by London Underground staff paralysing inner city travelling in the capital and rail strikes on networks in the south and north of the country, rail passengers have had much to be glum about. Adding insult to injury even the sky commute has been disrupted by BA strike action, negating any opportunity for networking at 30,000 feet.

If these unfortunate disruptions have served to remind commuters of the unpleasant side effects of the daily travel to work (a TUC survey estimates that over 3 million people in the UK spend over two hours a day commuting), this is a situation that will unfortunately only get worse in the future.

While many people merely accept the commute as a necessary trial to be endured in the process of travelling from the domestic comfort zone to the workplace, others have started to look at better ways to spend this ‘dead’ time.

Of course one of the obvious ‘best’ uses of this time spent in transit is to catch up on some work. By the power of WIFI this is an option for everyone. However, in this age of interconnectedness, it is quite likely that you spent a significant proportion of last night with your mind on the working week. Working more hours is not necessarily the solution to effective productivity either – just ask Alex Soojung-Kim Pang According to, Rest (Why You Get More Done When You Work Less), a new book.

Along with reading, there are other obvious ways of spending your commute, most of which involve phone + app + avoiding eye contact…. Day dreaming was an old school favourite of the commuter although this is something of a dying art as smart technology moves to plug the tiniest stimulation gap and over packed trains mean that unless you have a window seat you risk meeting a stranger’s eyes with your zoned out stare!

As a Londoner I naturally adopt the habits of my fellow commuters when travelling to and from seminars, speaking functions or client meetings. It is only when clients from ‘the country’ are in town that I momentarily hop out of the fishbowl and see the world of the commute through their eyes. Just last week a one-to-one business client, who was based in the capital for many years before moving out to the coast, posed the rhetorical question, ‘how was I able to do this day in and day out for almost 20 years?’

As unfashionable as it is for most of us (and positively unnerving for many), striking up a conversation with a stranger has been proven to have positive benefits. Behavioural scientists conducted a study on New York’s subway, dividing subjects into two groups, one of which was asked to intentionally interact with strangers and the other instructed to seek solitude. The findings published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that while most commuters perceive solitude as delivering a more pleasurable commuting experience, the opposite was actually true. Other scientific studies have also highlighted the detrimental effects of the commute on health in terms of the negative emotional effect.

My client from out of town alerted me to an article in Country Life magazine, which featured the most social commutes into London. The piece reported that while commuters from Henley and Maidenhead tend to prioritise work, other commuters in pockets of Kent are so social they have “even been known to go on family holidays together”!

While this seems like a light year leap out of the average commuter’s comfort zone, there is perhaps a lesson to be learnt. It is very easy to spend 20 forgettable hours of your working week stuck in the same commuting habits. Striking up the occasional random conversation might just put an unexpected shine on your day…

Luan de Burgh

January 2017

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.