In the US, employers and employees are still debating whether commuting should be part of the working day. The cost of this still unresolved debate is jaw-dropping.

It is estimated that the debate between employers and employees over whether commuting is part of the workday has created a $578 billion productivity problem.

When does the workday start?

As Fortune's Jane Thier reports, when does your workday start? The moment you leave your apartment for the subway? When you read your first work email while waiting for coffee in the lobby of your office building? Or when you get to your desk, open your laptop and log in to your inbox? If you ask employees, they'll probably tell you that commuting counts as work. It's not hard to guess what their superiors think.

Commuting is one of the stages where bosses and workers often disagree about what counts as a productive workday. These back and forths cause many companies to engage in a seemingly endless battle with their employees over returning to the office. When it comes to remote work, the problem actually stems from fundamental differences in perspective.

Two major disconnects

These assumptions are also the findings of the latest National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by economists Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Steven J. Davis. The paper identifies two major disconnects between managers and employees that are delaying return-to-work efforts. First: Workers think that refusing to commute leads directly to greater productivity because it adds more hours to their day. Second: Employees fail to grasp the managerial challenges of leading a remote workforce.

The real dilemma is that both sides make reasonable points. Commuting is, by definition, time spent not working, but many employees who stay at home are already putting in extra hours at work. Even the staunchest pro-flexibility pundits acknowledge that personal work is critical for early-career workers, and that middle managers are stuck in the enviable position of implementing the in-office instructions of senior managers and addressing the concerns of new hires. The mismatched understanding of what matters most and what actually affects productivity explains why, after all this time, the game of tug of war is still being played.

Productivity and $578 billion

Barrero, one of the researchers and assistant professor of finance at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) Business School, says accounting for commuting time is an 'important issue' when evaluating the effectiveness of telecommuting. Of the respondents who told Barrero that they were more productive at home, nearly all of them, 86 percent, said that the time saved by not commuting was a big advantage and one of the things they liked best about working from home.

"Imagine someone who works eight hours a day for pay, lives thirty minutes from the office, and accomplishes the same thing whether they work from home or from the office," the authors write. The total time allocated to work is nine hours a day when commuting and eight hours a day when working from home. So the employee correctly perceives that they accomplish the same amount in 11 percent less time when working from home. This is a huge productivity boost," he writes.

Employees thus have more hours for other activities, be it leisure or childcare. While they don't always spend these hours on their work, many of them do spend them doing more work. This probably corresponds to a more productive scenario than employers assume.

According to Clever Real Estate, the average American spends about $8,500 and 239 hours each year commuting to and from work. That's 31 percent more money and 20 percent more time than before the pandemic. Among workers in professional sectors, this translates to 16 billion hours and $578 billion a year. That's a high price to pay for face-to-face meetings and face-to-face brainstorming.

Employers complain about lack of value for money

Up to this point, Barrero, Bloom and Davis cite data from the WFH Survey, in which almost half of those in remote jobs, 43 percent, say they are more productive at home, only 14 percent are less productive at home, and the remaining 43 percent are about the same in both locations.