There’s pressure on many workers to use every moment to increase their productivity. That’s partly because they’re being asked to do more than they can reasonably fit into a 40 hour work week and partly because not utilizing every possible second in service to an employer is often seen as a sign you’re not committed enough to the company. That makes you expendable, which is a position no one wants to be in.

That impetus is why you see articles like this full of tips on how to maintain productivity while flying. While the focus is specifically on entrepreneurs and small business owners, it also is meant to appeal and speak to all kinds of workers, from those who aspire to such titles to the everyday line employee who is feeling the weight of expectations that when they step off the plane they will have Gotten Stuff Done. That may take the form of:

  • Maintaining email connectivity, answering and sending message while in transit
  • Finishing (or making progress on) those reports or projects that are due in an unreasonable period of time
  • Some other form of overt productivity

Internet access now being widely available on flights has certainly ramped up these expectations. Whether an individual is paying for it themselves or expensing it to the company, there’s now little to no excuse for them to not be actively working and available while in the air. That internet access may be slow and unreliable, but you better have it.

I’ll make an admission here: When I was traveling frequently for work I would often intentionally *not* go online.

The reasons for doing so varied. Sometimes it was practical and the flight was simply too short to really get anything done. Or there was actual offline work I could be doing that email and messaging frequently pulled me away from when I was online. Other times it was more principled. Often a flight was a precursor to a long day of other work responsibilities such as client meetings, so if I had the chance to enjoy a couple hours reading a book or doing some personal writing I’d seize them.

I was still going to put in an 8+ hour day when I landed, so it’s not as if I was ducking out on anything, I was just shifting my availability, not trying to steal from my employer.

If anything this pressure to make travel – previously a period free of productivity expectations – into a time that’s still filled with work is indicative of a desire on the part of companies to get more than what they’re paying for out of their employees. With most full-time workers exempt from overtime pay, anything above and beyond a 40-hour work week is free productivity given to the employer. There’s no carrot – additional compensation – offered for working extra hard or extra long, just a stick, the fear that not being constantly available (including during travel) will communicate you don’t value the job and therefore may be fired.

It’s not just air travel, which usually encompasses a big chunk of time, that is or will be subject to these expectations. There are just as many (if not more) tips offered and apps suggested to help you remain productive while on your normal commute or during other presumed “downtime.” Employees are assumed to be available because of the ubiquity of devices and services that mean they can still answer emails or take part in calls even if they’re on the train or in their car.

That’s only going to become more pervasive as autonomous cars are introduced to the general public. It’s already on the rise as adoption of in-car voice assistants grows, allowing you to receive and respond to messages without taking your hands off the wheel.

For companies it’s a fine line to walk. The time spent commuting or traveling is time the individual worker is spending on work-related activities but for which they’re not compensated. Some businesses pay or support commuting costs, but their incentive for doing so was recently removed as they can no longer deduct such expenses. Still, they’re not paid more for either the time itself or for any additional work that’s done while on the train, plane, bus or taxi.

If companies are going to continue requiring workers to commute to central offices or travel to other locations for business purposes, it’s not just the mileage that should be reimbursed. At the very least there should be the understanding that if an individual is not being paid for the hours spent in transit there’s no expectation they will be working in that time. Such a situation is only fair, as the employee isn’t then feeling the pressure to be overtly productive in a period when they could otherwise be catching up on a book or movie they don’t otherwise have time to enjoy and the employer isn’t needing to shell out additional pay for additional work.

That disconnect is what this whole issue boils down to, the disparity between the pay offered and the work done. While set annual salaries are more predictable for everyone involved, they also favor the employer who can change the expectations communicated to employees at any point to get more productivity for the money they’ve offered.