Should emails whilst commuting count as work?

Grainne Shaughnessy
Last updated on 3rd September 2020
4 min read

Checking emails on the train. Does it count as work?

Last summer, a report by academics hit headlines when it claimed that checking and sending emails during the daily commute should count as work.

The study of 5,000 commuters found that 54% were using a train’s free Wi-Fi to send work emails.

Some employers might want to argue that if employees choose to look at emails on their commute, that’s their choice. Especially if it enables them to switch off once they’re home, knowing they have cleared the decks for the following day.

However, if a few emails on the return journey turns into responding to emails late into the evening, then it can negatively affect an employee’s wellbeing.

Research by William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, reveals that employees don’t even have to actually respond to emails out-of-hours to feel anxious. Just the mere expectation of ‘being available’ is enough to cause a degree of stress to the employee and their significant others.

So, should emails sent while commuting count as official work time? How can companies strike the right balance between empowering employees to use digital devices to be more efficient and work flexibly, but without creating an expectation that they must always be available?

Follow the French?

One answer might be for companies to assume something similar to the right to disconnect’ ruling introduced in France.

Initially touted as an outright ban on out-of-hours emails, the law is in fact reasonably vague and doesn’t restrict after-hours work communication. Instead, it requires organizations to include a ‘negotiation of obligations’ regarding how connected an employee is outside of office hours in every employee contract. Italy has also incorporated a very similar law.

Having something in writing, be it a contractual agreement or a company policy on the use of email out-of-hours, would certainly alleviate any anxiety employees might have around what the company norm is with regards to responding to emails before or after work.

Agree an accepted response time?

Another way of managing the demands electronic communication can place on individuals could be for senior managers to agree accepted time frames for their departments to respond to emails.

Some teams may receive both internal and external requests, so agreeing to respond to all external emails within 24-hours, and internal communications within 48-hours for example, sets a clear precedent and each team member knows that they don’t need to respond to that email that’s just come through as they’ve got home, until the following day.

However, imposing rules and expectations for replying to emails could potentially add to stress levels and wouldn’t take into account the ability for employees to manage their own time – what if, for example, they had a business-critical issue they were working on for a couple of days that meant they didn’t have time to respond to all emails?

Progressive People Companies enable their employees to work in the way that’s best for each of them. Setting a blanket expectation on everyone to reply to emails within a certain timeframe would undermine any messages you’re trying to send to your employees empowering them to work in the way that’s best for them.

Categorizing urgency levels

There’s always one employee who will flag all their emails as ‘urgent’, but it’s important for employees to be trained to recognize a vital business-critical issue that’s come through on an email that needs to be dealt with promptly, versus emails that are less urgent and can wait.

Sometimes, a sensitive or difficult email will benefit from a more considered response. It’s all too easy to panic and fly off a quick response to a problem that’s been flagged via email or a complaint, but this can sometimes cause more problems or errors further down the line.

HR and People leaders could mitigate this ‘urgency expectation’ by creating some guidance or training for employees around learning to recognize the urgency of different emails and knowing how and when to respond to difficult emails.

Let employees set the boundaries

The traditional 9-5 working day’s ceasing to exist. Today, employees want flexible working and to find ways of working that suit their lifestyle best. Good employers know this and allow employees to work in the way that works best for them. So, it’s crucial that companies don’t go too far the other way and eliminate emails out-of-hours.

In the study, one commuter said the daily commute was important to her sanity so that she can get work done on the train. “I am a busy mum and I rely on that time so I can get things done,” she explained.

What may be out-of-hours to one employee may be the normal working hours for another. For example, a lot of working parents may leave the office early or not work during the afternoon school run but are back online when their children have gone to bed.

It’s important that companies create an environment where employees can communicate their needs and work with their managers to set their own work boundaries, including email communication.

Employee wellbeing is paramount

Electronic devices have brought an immense amount of autonomy, efficiency and flexibility to the way we all work, but ensuring that employers strike the right balance between being connected to their people and allowing them sufficient time to switch-off, is vital to creating a healthy, happy workforce.

Reinforce to managers that the company has a duty of care to all its employees and that ensuring a healthy approach to the use of emails out-of-hours is vital to the workforce’s wellbeing. Encourage senior members of staff to set a precedent of what’s an acceptable use of email out-of-hours so that healthy email-use filters from the top-down.

Also encourage managers and team leaders to discuss and agree flexible working boundaries with their team members, including the hours when their flexible workers will and won’t be on email.

Finally, create a culture whereby employees feel comfortable to say if they feel under pressure by the level of emails they are receiving out-of-hours, as well as a means for employees to raise concerns over a particular employee’s email use.

No one-size-fits-all’

There are clear benefits for a lot of employees in being able to communicate out-of-hours and work in a more flexible way should they wish to. It’s also vital, however, to not impose expectations on employees.

Everyone works differently, and for many, not having the pressure to reply out of hours can alleviate stress and pressure. Ultimately, having a one-size-fits-all email policy’s not going to work across your whole workforce.

What does your workforce really want? Download insights from 3,500 employees on what gets them productive.


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