The great debate: should we really be checking work emails on the commute?

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Stylist Team
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To check or not to check, that is the question…

New research shows that over half of commuters use Wi-Fi to check work emails. Surprised? We’re not.

The study, conducted by the University of the West of England, looked at data from 5,000 passengers on commuter routes into London and found that 54% of commuters *used* the train’s Wi-Fi to get a headstart on their work.

Researchers felt that so many people were using travel time for work emails that their journeys should be counted as part of the working day, and urged employers to think carefully about how email could be affecting their staff’s work/life balance.

These findings started a big debate in the Stylist office. Should we really be checking our work emails while travelling to and from work? Opinion was divided. Some staffers said they never open their emails until they sit down at their desk; others said it was impossible to clear their inboxes if they didn’t do it before work.

We asked two editors with very different approaches to explain their side…

Rosamund Dean, acting deputy editor: “Yes, I do work emails on my commute”

You know those people who say they feel liberated when they don’t have their phone? To me, they are like those people who have one square of a bar of chocolate, and save the rest for later. I do not understand them, and never will.

The idea of a digital detox makes me shudder. I recently left my phone in a taxi and spent the afternoon watching it travel around London via the Find My iPhone app on my iPad. Eventually I got hold of the driver and persuaded him to drive to my office in return for a grubby fistful of cash. Being reunited with my phone made me calmer, not more stressed.

I like to feel connected. I like to know I’m not missing anything. And I like being able to reply to work emails, or catch up on other stuff (news, banking, WhatsApps from friends) while standing in a queue, eating lunch in the park or sitting on the Tube.

So, yes, I do work emails on my commute, like 54% of people in the study. I’m actually surprised the figure isn’t higher (when do the other 46% get on top of emails?). But the idea that we should be paid overtime for that reveals a dated attitude: that we’re only working when we’re in an office.

A salary is recompense for the work you do, not the physical hours you sit at a desk, particularly since open plan offices are not exactly conducive to getting shit done. I work from home one day a week and it’s my most productive day.

The answer to a good work/life balance is trusting employees by giving them the flexibility to work from home when they need to focus, respond to emails whenever is most convenient (often that’s on your commute, right?), and be given the opportunity to fit their life around that.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Anna Fielding, associate editor: “The commute isn’t work time”

I commute with a book. Made of paper. My commute is stressful enough without the expectation that I will be fiddling with my phone along the way. I need the mental space. I’m doing something that is nothing to do with work and nothing to do with Transport for London and nothing to do with that absolute fool standing in front of me who won’t take his backpack off and keeps smacking it into everybody else.

So many of us work long hours, me included. And, like so many of us, I also do work at home. But when I do, I focus on something specific. Transcribing an interview. Writing or editing a piece. Planning a project. Solid, distinct tasks with definite endpoints. Work then can be completed with satisfaction and put away. I refuse to get stuck in the infinite loop of my inbox. I can check it if I need to, but I don’t have it linked to the mail app on my phone. That way madness lies.

Dealing with email while commuting has practical difficulties. The signal is uncertain and I type on a phone at about a quarter of the speed I do with a keyboard. I could probably deal with three or four emails on my way into work. I can deal with every single one of them with just 15 minutes at my desk.

I’m also, quite emphatically, not a morning person. I need that 25 minutes with a book. I need it to make sure I’m something approaching sane and competent by the time I’m at my desk. (The other effect of my night owl brain means my 8am inbox is generally quite empty: I’m often in the office later than most and deal with everyone else’s end-of-day emails before I leave.)

The commute isn’t work time. I could try to work and fill it with anxiety about wavering Wi-Fi and wondering if messages had actually sent. Or I could acknowledge that everything has its place. 

My commute is email-free, and better for it. 

Image: Getty