Some of us remember a time when departing the office not only meant leaving work behind for the day, but also meant leaving behind any possibility of checking emails until our return the next day.
That time is long done, and the prevalence of portable devices and Wi-Fi-enabled public transport means our commute is no longer filled with reading, listening to music or staring out of the window.
More and more of us are continuing to work on the way to and from the office. But are we cheating ourselves by working when we are not being paid?
A study from the University of the West of England raised questions of whether work-life balance was becoming more and more off-kilter.
Researcher Dr Juliet Jain told the BBC that a “blurring of boundaries” between work and home life is happening, and asked: “How do we count that time? Do workplace cultures need to change?”
Continuing to work on the train can be a good thing in that it allows some people the flexibility to leave the office earlier or later. But the study showed that many people were simply working extra hours in addition to their time in the office.
“There’s a real challenge in deciding what constitutes work,” said Dr Jain, from the university’s Centre for Transport and Society, adding that counting a journey as work could “ease commuter pressure on peak hours” travel. (At least then we wouldn’t have to check emails while standing up in a packed carriage).
However, the more official commute working becomes, the more employers would want “surveillance and accountability.”
A necessary evil?
The study, which examined 5000 rail passengers, found that 54 percent of commuters using train Wi-Fi were sending work emails.
As well as being an infringement on personal time, the habit of working abnormal hours has been linked to depression and other health problems.
In Germany, Volkswagen experimented with a ban on out-of-work emails.
Nevertheless, many people need to work outside the office just to keep on top of things.
“I am a busy mum and I rely on that time,” one commuter told researchers. “It’s really important to my sanity that I can get work done on the train,” she said.
Another noted that: “It’s dead time in a way, so what it allows me to do is finish stuff and not work in the evenings.”
A complex task
“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,” said Jamie Kerr of the Institute of Directors.
“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.”