In the modern age, the commute is often used as a space to squeeze extra work in. Despite it feeling logical, it speaks to the toxic workplace culture that has quietly taken us over.
Whatever work you’re doing now on your way to work, stop. It’s not helping. Increasingly, especially in my generation, the commute is now another arena for the reading and replying to work-related emails. Bluntly put, the transport we use to get to and from our jobs has become an extension of our office. We just, somehow, have less space.
This extension of work into commute time reflects the presence of an intrusive and pernicious “always-on” culture. It reflects an environment where we are enslaved to work, even when not physically there. The fact that we’re perpetually busy may seem like a boon, as it’s for a purpose we hold dear (work), but it comes at the expense of our lives and health.
Research shows how workers fit work into commute time, in part, to ease the burden of work. It seems logical. Answering emails on route to work can help to save time once you’re at work. Equally, email can be answered on the way home from work to ease the pressure of tomorrow or when you get home.
But here “savings” of time and effort are likely to be illusory. Employers are not going to cut email traffic just because workers are replying to emails on the way to and from work. To the contrary, the incentive is for employers to encourage email traffic outside of regular hours in order to exploit the free work of workers.
New technology enables us to connect with our work, beyond normal hours. Laptops and iPhones mean we have instant access to our work and workplaces. In Europe, Wifi on trains and buses has helped to turn commuting into work time. But technology itself is not the issue, we need to look at organisational culture.
Organisations increasingly demand that their employees give their bodies and lives to work. Staying late at work is a badge of honour. Presenteeism – the act of being present at work for longer than is required – is rife in workplaces and reflects on the culture of overwork that is endemic in modern society.
Working during commute time is simply an extension of the same culture. It demonstrates the way work has taken over our lives. We find time to work even when not at work because we are exposed to a culture that venerates it.
Despite all the extra effort, productivity remains low. Commuters are no more productive for answering emails on the go. Indeed productivity is likely to be lower due to the stressed out and exhausting nature of long commute and work schedules.
In a rational world, we would move to ban out-of-hours email, not just to protect free time, but also to safeguard health. But to undo the generational tick, we need to hit the hard reset. Cut work hours, or chip away at the assumption that always on means always moving forward. Find a purpose outside our weekday purpose.
That, or just enjoy work…when you get there.