Tread careful if you Euro-commute

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Working in one country and living in another has its downside, reports Cotten Timberlake, special correspondent to

It's become a European ritual.

Every Friday night, hundreds of thousands of employees stream to Brussels, London and other airports to go home for the weekend. They have compelling reasons for working in one country and living in another. And the number of Euro-commuters is expected to grow.

 But the price is high, not just for the commuters but also for their employers. We're talking extramarital affairs and low company morale, among other things.

"It's fun, exciting. It's new. But there are consequences people don't know about," says Vera Lenaerts, a senior manager for Swift, a Brussels messaging cooperative for banks. "There are few couples who can cope with this for a long period of time."

Euro-commuting stems largely from the growth in dual careers. Also, a couple often doesn't want to uproot their children. Or the husband and wife decide that they want to live in their home country. Higher housing costs in the work city can be a factor, as are tax considerations. The Channel Tunnel has been a spur.

Richard Savage, vice president for human resources, Europe, for AC Nielsen, says Euro-commuting is "absolutely going to keep growing as business becomes much more European and companies shift headquarters and move people around for senior positions."

 The original significant Friday evening stream - which continues today - started out of Brussels around 20 years ago, as EC and Nato employees headed home for weekends, says Mike Johnson, who writes books on management and human resources. Another stream: Swiss who work in the London financial district and fly back to Zurich. Then there are the flows out of Paris, Amsterdam, Strasbourg and now increasingly Dublin.

Companies try to help their commuters by buying blocks of airline and train seats and paying for spouses to visit. But the kind of help they really need, employers can't really give.

Picture this bad-case scenario:

Our Euro-commuter - usually the husband - goes to the new city. It's a kick. But pretty soon, when he comes home, he is tired and stressed from travel delays, Johnson says. As soon as he's in the door, he gets hit with the bills, a broken appliance, sick children, an irritable spouse.

Savage knows all about it. He Euro-commuted from his home in England to his job in Brussels for 11 months a decade ago because his wife went back to college. "Both of us were looking for sympathy and neither of us were thinking we had to give it to the other - and yet both were equally deserving of it," Savage says. "Those are the kinds of things that add to the misery."

Next thing you know, our Euro-commuter, faced with the domestic realities, starts leaving for work on Sunday night. But back at work, he gets lonely. He asks a woman - perhaps a colleague - out to dinner. Cliche time: One thing leads to another.

At least three acquaintances have started extramarital relationships this way, says Johnson, who splits his time between Lymington, England, and Brussels. "It's definitely a downside," he says. "It's a dark downside."

Naturally our Euro-commuter's relationship with his wife becomes strained.

One day he looks around his weekday digs and sees ... Ikea.

The do's and don'ts

They're little more than common sense, but not enough Euro-commuters heed them

  • Don't let travel delays aggravate you. Instead, use the time productively: Make calls, send e-mail.
  • Don't travel back to work on Sunday nights. Getting up at dawn Monday is a pain, but preferable.
  • Furnish your new, weekday apartment with your own belongings.
  • Develop weekday friends and activities.
  • Send flowers and e-mails and make unplanned phone calls to remind your spouse that your are thinking of him or her.
  • Ask your spouse and children to come visit you, alone or together. That also lightens your travel load.
  • Treat the weekends and holidays as special time together.
  • Just get on the phone and organize a get-together with old friends.
Pretty soon, Lenaerts says, he realises he really doesn't know his kids. And that he also has lost touch with his old friends.


But that's not all. Euro-commuters start planning their travel so that they end up near home on Friday, Savage says. Which isn't necessarily in the company's interest.

In addition, it's hard to develop team spirit if your top people come and go constantly, he says. And it's bad for morale if the head honchos aren't there on a Friday when everybody else has to be, he says. (Some top execs negotiate, for example, a 3pm Friday departure as part of their package.)

And so? Companies should hire Euro-commuters only when they have to, Savage maintains.

And you Euro-commuters out there, don't, Lenaerts pleads, Euro-commute for more than two years at a time.

Cotten Timberlake is a special correspondent to and The Wall Street Journal Europe. She is based in Paris.

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