Should Commuting Time Count as Work Time?

September 18, 2018

One of our areas of expertise on the Argentus blog has always been the workplace itself: as a recruitment company who tries to stay on top of technological and social developments, we’re always fascinated by the way that working culture is shifting in the 21st century. We’ve blogged about the rise (and potential fall) of open plan offices, the shift towards contingent staffing, surveillance in the workplace, and other topics that exemplify how digital communications have redefined the workplace.

A while ago, we wrote about a new law in France that sought to restrict companies from requiring employees to check email after hours: in 2017, a decision by France’s Supreme Court enshrined a “right to disconnect” for employees, forcing companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate a new protocol with their workers to help make sure that work obligations don’t continue after working hours.

The idea was ridiculed in some North American circles. It isn’t surprising, given France’s famous reputation for long holidays and a restriction on working hours, as well as the stereotype that North American workers are always-connected workaholics. But we thought the idea had some merit, especially in a corporate world that’s rewriting the rules of the workplace using digital technologies.

The same tech that’s removing formality in the workplace, for example by allowing employees to work from home, is also tethering us to work-based communications in a round-the-clock mission creep that doesn’t necessarily translate to more productivity. Now, an article in the New York Times explores some research from the University of West England to raise an interesting, similar question to the French law:

If employees are answering and responding to work emails during their commute, should that time count as working time?

It’s the latest front in the struggle for work-life balance, which has become a corporate buzzword but also a real initiative for many companies competing for top talent in a booming job market where candidate is king (or queen). It’s based on a simple idea: if you’re working, shouldn’t it count as working time no matter whether you’re doing it on the train, or in the office?

Since the industrial revolution, as companies have adopted a wages-per-time system of employee governance, it’s been a pretty solid rule that time spent getting to work doesn’t count as time spent at work – even if the employee would be spending that time doing something else if not for the obligation of a job.

But now, wifi and cellular data has proliferated across more forms of transportation, including trains and subway systems, giving more opportunity for people to check and send email on the way to and from work. Which means that time spent commuting is, for more and more people, working time as well. The research studied 5,000 UK commuters for 40 weeks and found that more than half of commuters read email and work documents as they travel – as opposed to time spent watching streaming content, playing games, reading books, or that time-honoured pastime for commuters everywhere: people watching.

According to the Times, a number of European countries are evaluating the lengthening of commutes, as well as the widespread availability of mobile internet, as a basis for re-evaluating how the workweek is counted so that it includes time spent commuting. A tribunal in Norway ruled that some employees there could count commuting as working time because they’re “at the disposal of their employer,” even if they aren’t actually working.

Battles over the number of hours spent working, as well as work-life balance, will always be a fixture of relations between employees and employers – even as that relationship morphs in a world where contingent work is on the rise. And it’s important to codify expectations for hours to help ensure that employees don’t get taken advantage of.

But from our perspective, an issue like this is a bit irrelevant to the top companies: in many cases, the best performing corporate working cultures are those that prioritize results over the amount of time spent working. It’s inevitable that in some fields – law and finance, for example – companies are looking for employees who can clock a high number of hours. In our specialty of Supply Chain Management, decision-makers need to often be available to respond to supply, manufacturing or distribution issues no matter what time they arise, so they need to be available a lot. We find that companies that spend time clock-watching instead of measuring their employees’ results suffer for it. If you agree with that sentiment, then the idea of including commuting time in a working day is almost beside the point: a lot of employees at the best companies don’t feel a tremendous time pressure. Some even enjoy using a lengthy commute to get extra work done, if they feel like their employer is evaluating them based on results rather than time spent working.

Still, counting commuting time as working time is an interesting idea – even if only as another incentive companies can use to prize the best talent away from competitors.

But what do you think, either from the perspective of an employer or an employee? Should time spent answering emails on the train count as time on the clock? Is the whole idea of a set “clock” pointless for white collar employees? Should companies just measure results instead?

We’re always interested in starting a conversation with our readers, so let us know what you think!


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