The New York City subway is a terrible place for productivity. During the morning commute, the crowds force many people to stand, one hand occupied by a pole for balance, so getting any real work done is often impossible. Riders can use their phones to browse their inboxes or draft a couple of emails, but internet access in the city’s tunnels is spotty. When you look around, people mostly are reading books, scrolling through their music libraries, playing colorful phone games, or just staring into space, disconnected.
Occasionally, though, someone violates the morning subway’s slacking-off sanctity. Earlier this week, a woman managed to find a seat next to me on the train, took out her laptop, and started plugging away at a spreadsheet. The sight filled me with dread, as it does every time I spot a fellow commuter writing code or finessing a PowerPoint presentation while I listen to podcasts. I suddenly became much more aware of the hard, thin edge of my own work computer, digging into my thigh through my tote bag.
It’s a common existential crisis among American office workers that virtually nowhere is now safe from the pull of their jobs. This inescapability is usually attributed to the proliferation of smartphones, with their push notifications signaling the arrival of emails and other workplace messages. The first iPhone, released in 2007, helped make social media omnipresent and pave the way for hyper-connected professional lives. Now, on-call retail workers and law-firm partners alike often feel as though they never really clock out.