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Commuting again

Today, for the first time since mid-March, I went physically back to my University to work.

I realise a lot of people's work lives have remained tied to their workplaces, and the people in them, during lockdown -- and I greatly appreciate your efforts and sacrifices. But for me working from home has been something of a revelation, and it was distinctly strange to roll back the clock.

For those who may have forgotten, there's an archaic practice we used to indulge in called "the commute". You've possibly forgotten how it works, so let me remind you. It's where you go from the place where you are to another place, do largely the same things there that you would have done in that first place -- and then go back to the first place again later on the same day. And you do this repeatedly.

Looked at this way it sounds slightly surreal. Quite close, in fact, to another ancient practice many of us have forgotten (and which my friend Michael was discussing the other day) called "the holiday", which differs from "the commute" in that you typically stay in the other place overnight and some people claim that they do different things there (although in practice many just do largely the same things as they would have done anyway).

And it's so complicated! I had to pack a bag to do my "commute", and remember (and then find) lots of things to take with me that I already have in the first place. A laptop. A notebook and pen. My ID. Hand sanitiser and a mask. I had to take a bottle of water, because the water dispensers in the other place are shut down and the kitchens are closed. The coffee machines are in the kitchens, so no tea of coffee, leaving me as grumpy as might be expected by the time I got home. And of course I inevitably forgot something that I then needed: sunglasses in this case, which I could have done with when I was driving home into the sun later.

I got up early to do my "commute", but this didn't translate into either more time or more results. The time got chewed up by the thirty minutes I needed to pack my bag and then fifteen minutes to actually perform the "commute" ritual of driving to the other place. That's forty-five minutes of dead time, instead of the normal thirty seconds it takes to get ready. And any pretence of results was defeated by the fact that the keyboard in my office is ever so slightly different to the one in my study, so I spent an inordinate amount of time hitting "delete" to fix typing mistakes. Oh, and I couldn't get anything to work at all for ten minutes after I arrived because I'd forgotten shutting all the plugs off back in March.

And after all that, I delivered a class online, just like normal. I'm not sure anyone even noticed that my background was different: certainly nobody commented on it. Thinking about it, of course, this isn't so surprising: they probably assumed I was using a digital background, unable to believe that I'd gone old-school and done it by actually moving to a different place, with no CGI. I can see why that would be hard to imagine.

It wasn't as though there was really anyone in the building either. I ran into one of my colleagues and chatted -- masked and at two metres distance, obviously. So much less efficient and enjoyable than a video call where we could have properly seen and heard each other.

All things considered, this "commuting" thing clearly isn't something I'll be looking to revive. It may have its uses when one is feeling nostalgic -- a bit like archery, camping, and the BBC archive of 1970's sitcoms -- but at least for me it's something that's been happily and deservedly consigned to the past. I like my house: all my things are there, and the coffee's better.

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