Should Checking Emails While Commuting Count As Work?

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With the advances in mobile phone technology and improved Wi-Fi on trains, commuters are more frequently using this time to check their work emails. A University in the West of England has found that these factors have effectively extended the working day.

The study examined 5000 rail passengers on commuter routes into London. Its findings showed that 54% of commuters who were using the train’s Wi-Fi were sending/checking work emails. Those going to work were catching up with emails sent days prior and those on the return journey were finishing off tasks not finalised in their standard working hours.

The study examined the impact of free Wi-Fi being upgraded on the London to Birmingham and London to Aylesbury routes. A commuter told the BBC that they considered it “dead time” allowing them to clear up work that otherwise they would have had to finish in the evenings at home.

But is this detrimental to productivity in your workplace?

The findings do raise questions about the work-life balance. Ultimately, should members of staff be expected to answer emails outside their working hours and is this healthy? Business leaders have suggested that this supposed inability to ‘switch off’ was important for productivity.

Jamie Kerr, Head of External Affairs at the Institute of Directors stated “this increasing flexibility has the potential to radically shift the work-life balance for the better – but it also leaves open the door to stress and lower productivity.”

But are you as an employer maximising your workforce’s effectiveness if they are completing work tasks on their journey to/from work? Is there a reasonable amount of accountability when staff are working in this fashion? It’s worth noting the type of tasks being completed during this time.

“Blurring of Boundaries”

The university’s Centre for Transport and Society Dr Juliet Jain, told the BBC that this increased mobile phone usage and internet access had caused a “blurring of boundaries” between work and home life. “How do we count that time? Do workplace cultures need to change?” she asked, highlighting the difficulty of quantifying the amount of work completed outside hours.

The study appears to show people are now working additional hours as opposed to working flexibly however. Dr Jain adds that this creates a “real challenge” in determining what constitutes ‘work’. It’s possible that this could help ease commuter travel times, allowing a more staggered working time for employees, yet employers would have less surveillance over their employee’s activity.

What are the implications for confidentiality?

Whilst there are clearly benefits to this from an employees perspective and may in fact allow for more flexibility in respect of working practices, employers need to bear in mind confidentiality implications.

A train or indeed any public space and the surrounding areas, are often crowded and there are no guarantees as to the safety and security of public transport Wi-Fi connections. Employers need to ensure this means of working does not breach their email/internet policies along with confidentiality commitments.

Siobhan Howard-Palmer, associate at HRC Law states:

‘’Employers need to consider wider implications of such practices including data security and GDPR. If employees are to be working during their commute, devices should be equipped with appropriate security installed to comply with GDPR and the employer’s own policies in relation to client data.”

Safe working practices and work-life balance

Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment; this applies even to those members of staff who work at home. If employees are ‘working’ whilst on public transport how can an employer’s responsibility reasonably extend this far? It is likely this responsibility will fall to transport providers which may have implications on already rising travel costs.

This practice may also ‘mask’ other issues. For example, an employer will tend to notice the employee who is regularly the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. However this can be an indication that someone is struggling with their workload or the job in general. If employers aren’t aware that employees are relying on their work commute to get through their basic tasks then there may be missed opportunities to offer support or address genuine capability issues.

The message overall is not a negative one and can be summed up by Jamie Kerr, Parliamentary Affairs Officer for the Institute of Directors, “This increasing flexibility has the potential to radically shift the work-life balance for the better – but it also leaves open the door to stress and lower productivity. With the concept of clocking on and clocking off no longer straightforward, defining where leisure begins and work ends will be vital for both employers and individuals, as well as a complex task for regulators.”