Jason Punyon

Commuting: A Perverse Incentive at Stack Exchange

So, we just went through comp review season here at the Stack Exchange. This is pretty much the only time of year we talk about money, because that’s the way we want it. We pay people enough to be happy and then shut up about it. You’ll probably only ever hear stuff about comp from me around September each year because that’s the only time it’s on my mind. The system works, and I’m generally happy about my financial situation, but we have a comp policy about remote work that subjects me to a bit of a perverse incentive when it comes to commuting.

The policy is that if you work out of the New York office, you get a 10% pay increase relative to what you’d be making if you worked remote. The reason for this has always been a little cloudy to me. I’ve heard cost of living adjustment. I’ve heard we want to incentivize people to be in the office because of “accidental” innovation from pick-up meetings and conversations in the hall. Regardless of the reason, that’s the policy.

I live in Stamford, CT and have been commuting to the New York Office 3 days a week (down from 5) since my daughter Elle was born in December. My total commute time averages just under 3 hours a day (10 min from my house to the Metro North, 55 minutes to Grand Central, 20 minutes from Grand Central down to the Office). So I end up commuting about 36 hours per month (down from 60).

On the Metro North getting a seat means cramming in next to one or two other people in side-by-side seats leaving little elbow room for typing (or living, FSM forbid they’re overweight), sitting in the seats that face each other and knee-knock with people who are drawn from a population with a mean height of 7 feet, or sitting on the floor in a vestibule near the doors. Some days the Metro North crawls because apparently they didn’t design this surface rail line to deal with even the slightest amount of rain. The subway is the subway, you get what you get. This commute stinks and it’d be my default position to forgo it.

Here’s where the perversion comes in. Let’s say I make $120K a year (I’m using this number because the math works out simply) out of the New York Office and decide to go remote. Every month I’ll make $1K less and get 36 hours of my life back. So Stack Exchange thinks my commute is worth $27.78 an hour. 4x minimum wage for no productive output is nice work if you can get it.

When done right, it makes people extremely productive. Private office? Check. Flexible hours? Check. Short commute? Check. I’ll let you in on a secret: most of our remote developers work longer hours than our in-office devs. It’s not required, and probably won’t always be the case, but when going to work is as simple as walking upstairs (pants optional, but recommended) people just tend to put in more hours and work more productively.

Going remote means a large portion of the 36 hours a month I spend commuting would go back to productive work (I won’t lie, some of it will be spent enjoying time with my daughter) so Stack Exchange is better off. I’d be happier because I get to skip the dreadful commute and work instead so I’d be better off. But I don’t make nearly enough that I can just drop 10% of my pay and not feel it.