British researchers plan to present a paper to the Royal Geographical Society this week arguing that employers should start counting daily commutes as time on the clock. The group studied 5,000 rail passengers on commuter routes into London and found a majority were using the time to catch up on work emails. “How do we count that time? Do workplace cultures need to change?” Juliet Jain, one of the paper’s authors, said to the BBC. (Jain did not respond to a request for comment.)
Counting your train ride as official work time is a nice idea, in line with right-to-disconnect laws and device-free dinners. But it is way out of touch with the reality of the flexible, always-on-call work that many of us do. It doesn’t really matter when our work time “officially” begins or ends if our hours are all over the place anyway. And personally, I don’t want my workplace dictating when I can and can’t work—lest I have a kid’s doctor’s appointment in the morning that I want to make up for it by logging on in the evening.
But the study is a useful reminder that the time we travel to and from work is ours to use any way we like. Yes, technology has blurred the line between work and home, and we are mostly slaves to our phones. But maybe the commute is just the place to start drawing some bright lines. We are architects of our own destiny if we choose to do the design work. And there’s no time like fall for new beginnings.
The good ‘ol days
When I was a young reporter in New York City, I read a newspaper on my subway ride to work. People jostled on the trains for space to open their papers, with many opting for New York Post, a tabloid, simply as a way to avoid the kerfuffle. The broadsheets were bigger back then, and the art of commuter folding a thing.
Over the next 20 years, my commute evolved alongside technology and work. My tasks fell into a variety of categories including:
- Addressing the massive backlog of emails I didn’t get to at work
- Kidmin—the work of organizing my children’s activities, playdates, communication with teachers, pick ups, and life
- Listening to podcasts
- Attacking my Pocket backlog
- Reading novels or issues of the New Yorker
(I never got around to downloading shows, though I sort of wish I had, since I seem to have missed every zeitgeisty show of the last decade.)
The options at my disposal were evidence of enormous technological progress and innovation. They were also awful, because I was paralyzed by choices: Do I work more? Use time to learn philosophy or practice Portuguese? Maybe I should meditate and prepare for the children awaiting me at home. Must. Call. Mom.
The stress of my commute was matched by another unfortunate reality: I was not getting the exercise I needed to stay sane. So I started biking to work in London. It solved so many problems: Not only was I was getting a workout, the bike ride eliminated the possibility of even thinking about work due to laser-like focus I had to apply to not dying as I dodged cars, buses, lorries, and tourists who are unaware of bike lanes (so many). I tune out work, and kids, and nagging thoughts of intellectual self-improvement and focus on the trees and swans in Hyde Park, the rain, or the random thoughts that dance in my mind when it is allowed to wander, even if only until the next car cuts me off.
Research show just how important our commute is to our happiness. The Commuting & Wellbeing Study (pdf) from the University of the West of England, for example, examined the impacts of commuting on the well-being of over 26,000 employed people living in England between 2009-10 and 2014-15.
It looked at how changes in subjects’ subjective well-being were related to changes in their commuting circumstances, year by year. Among the findings: Every extra minute of commute time reduced people’s satisfaction with both their jobs and their leisure time, and increased strain and mental-health issues. Working from home, walking to work, and shorter commute times, meanwhile, all increased job satisfaction and decreased job attrition. Walking to work also decreased strain, while cycling to work was associated with better self-reported health.
Jain’s study was narrower: It examined the impact of free wi-fi being upgraded on the London to Birmingham and London to Aylesbury routes. They found that of the 5,000 commuters, 54% using the train’s Wi-Fi were sending work emails, with others using their own mobile phone connections for work emails.
Unsurprisingly, the study said that improvements to internet access “had the effective consequence of extending working hours, using laptops and mobile phones,” according to the BBC.”There’s a real challenge in deciding what constitutes work,” Jain told the BBC. That’s absolutely true—but it’s up to us, not the government, and not our employers, to take charge.