I liked to have a firm division between work and family, and the public transit commute – two subways and two buses – served as a helpful transition for me from “Dad” to “Dr. Chapnick” and back. (Note: the “Dr.” title is a military thing. I have always been Professor Chapnick in civilian institutions.)
By 2019, thanks to the combination of a dramatic increase in the size of Toronto’s population and insufficient investment in our public transit system, my commute had become significantly less comfortable – and consequently less productive – but I was still committed to working from the office.
The pandemic began to change my perspective. I did not anticipate the overwhelming psychological and physical benefits of replacing the 100+ daily minutes on the TTC with more peaceful time at home.
I hadn’t realized how frustrated I had become by the endless subway delays and the overcrowded buses, especially on days when I had to get home in time to drive one of my kids to an after-school activity.
In anticipation of a return to full-time, on-site learning during the current academic year, I looked forward to the more human relationships that I’d be able to build with this year’s student cohort, but I wasn’t sure about where I’d be working when I wasn’t teaching.
Now that my in-class teaching for the term is coming to an end, it’s time to decide.
My tentative plan is to work from the College around four days per week. I’ll commute by public transit three of those days, and drive the fourth.
Driving, which I rarely did pre-pandemic, cuts the commute in half, and will help when I have to be home at a specific time.
At one level, this compromise is hardly ideal. It’s easier to do longer-form writing from a single location. And that public transit experience is going to get even less comfortable as more people return to work.
But there are three compelling reasons for me to continue to commute.
The first is – paradoxically – because I am an introvert. More specifically, having my own office is really important to me.
The shift to a hybrid work environment is already prompting a re-imagination of how we use our work space, and I suspect that we could eventually have to ask folks who only come into the College a couple of days a week to share offices.
The second reason is, paradoxically again, work-life balance.
It’s much harder for me to draw a firm line between work and family when I don’t leave the house.
Assuming that I’m able to do about 60 minutes of reading over my 100+ minutes of commuting time, staying home during the pandemic should have opened up 40-45 extra minutes to work per day. I typically worked an extra 90.
That was fine at first, when the pivot to remote teaching required everyone to bear down, but it was not sustainable.
The third reason is that, as incoming department head, I feel a responsibility to be physically available to my junior colleagues.
I suspect that the real losers among those of us privileged enough to have had flexible jobs during the pandemic were the new employees.
As a close lawyer friend first pointed out to me, its the least experienced among us who benefit the most from the unplanned meetings in the hall, by the printer, or at the water fountain.
They can ask questions that they might not feel comfortable putting in an email, or might not feel important enough to justify a Teams call.
Does that mean that I think everyone should return to work as often as I will?
If this were five or six years ago, my kids were younger, my commute was longer, or I was not about to begin a term as department head, I would almost certainly try to stay home more.
So I do not begrudge those who plan to decrease their time in the office.
But I do hope that new scholars – at the Canadian Forces College and elsewhere – come into work often enough to learn some of the unwritten rules of academic life, and that readers who are in more senior positions consider doing the same to support their junior peers.
Kathryn May has done some great reporting on the future of hybrid work in the Canadian public service which you can fine here and here. If you’d like to read something longer, try Jeffrey Roy’s January 2022 study.
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