Wearable Tech Confirms Wear-and-Tear of Work Commute

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A study uses smartphones and fitness trackers to predict job performance.

A line of cars in traffic
Information about the daily commute monitored by personal tech devices can predict job performance. (Photo by Randy Lisciarelli on Unsplash)

Office commuting may not return to its pre-pandemic place in the work life, but snarled traffic and transit delays probably won’t go away for good.

As hybrid and remote options remake the office, a new study demonstrates the link between commuting and job performance. The research also shows how consumer technology can predict individual work quality based on the daily grind of commuting.

“Your commute predicts your day,” says Andrew Campbell, the Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of computer science, the lead researcher, and a co-author of the study. “COVID-19 may have upended the work world but traveling to and from the office remains an important part of life that affects the quality of work that people produce.”

Photo of Andrew Campbell, Subigya Nepal, and Pino Audia.
From left, Andrew Campbell, Subigya Nepal, Guarini ’23, and Pino Audia. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

The study published in Future of Work: COVID-19 and Beyond, a special issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing, analyzed data from activity trackers and smartphones to capture physiological and behavioral patterns during commuting. The information that was monitored included physical activity levels, phone usage, heart rate, and stress. The system also captured external factors such as location, weather, commute duration, and commute variability.

Using two criteria of job performance—levels of counterproductive work behavior and organizational citizenship behavior—the study indicates that high performing workers may be more physically fit and stress resilient. Low performers showed higher stress levels in the times before, during, and after commutes. Lower performers were also found to use their phones more during their commutes. 

“Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work,” said Pino Audia, a professor of management and organizations at the Tuck School of Business, a senior scientist on the study team, and a co-author of the study. “This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data collected over a one-year period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The workers, close to 95% of whom drove, were monitored as they traveled. They were also monitored for 30-minute periods before and after commuting.

According to the research team, previous studies have used more intrusive and expensive technology to study the commuting experience, but no research has used consumer technology to predict workplace performance.

“We were able to build machine learning models to accurately predict job performance,” said Subigya Nepal, Guarini ’23, and lead author of the paper. “The key was being able to objectively assess commuting stress along with the physiological reaction to the commuting experience.”

Shayan Mirjafari, Guarini ’22, co-authored the study.

In the future, the researchers expect that ubiquitous sensing technology will be able to detect commuter stress and offer tailored interventions such as music, podcasts, connecting them to friends and family, or offering tips for short stops.

“Commuting does not always have to be a negative experience,” said Campbell, co-director of Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab. “How you commute may be just as important as if you commute.”

David Hirsch