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Thursday 13 December 2018

'I can have breakfast with the kids and I'm in work in 20 minutes' - meet the de-commuters

Some 200,000 of us spend more than an hour on the road to work. Could that change with promises of more regional jobs and technology allowing more people to work from home? Kathy Donaghy talks to those who've taken their chance to 'de-commute'

Back home: Breid Gallagher with her husband PJ and family including Harry (right), Niall and Aimee in Donegal
Back home: Breid Gallagher with her husband PJ and family including Harry (right), Niall and Aimee in Donegal
Learning curve: Mia O'Loughlin. Photo: Patrick Browne
Virtual reality: Shane Loughlin (left) and Keith Moran at SL Controls in Collooney, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

Kathy Donaghy

Gordon Jones had just turned 40 but he felt he was missing out on life. His daily commute was literally making him sick. He lived in Gorey, Co Wexford but felt like he was just sleeping there without any real connection to the town.

He and his wife Ciara had moved there in 2010 with their two children Aidan (11) and Margaret (9) and lived with Ciara's father for a couple of years. Their youngest son Fearghal (7) was born the week they bought their house in the town. Gorey felt like a good place for them to raise their family with good schools, a strong sense of community and houses they could afford.

Gordon's job with an IT company meant a drive to Cherrywood in South Dublin every day - a drive that took about an hour if he left early to beat the traffic. Some days he'd have to see clients in other parts of the city. Seeing customers in Donnybrook sometimes meant three hours in the car in the morning. He would regularly carpool with two other men heading in the same direction, leaving home before 6am to get a head start. Leaving later could mean adding an extra half hour on to the journey.

"It was frustrating - knowing there was nothing you could do to make the journey go any quicker. The best you could do was hope somebody had something interesting to tell you or hope there was something good on the radio. On 99 mornings out of 100 it was pretty boring," says Gordon.

A punishing routine

His daily routine was taking a heavy toll on his family life. "I'd finish work at 4.30pm if I was on an early shift and get home after 6pm, after an hour and a half's journey in traffic. I'd have no energy left - I'd spent everything on the road. You're concentrating all the time, you have to have your wits about you all the way. The kids would be buzzing because they haven't seen you all day, but I'd be tired trying to deal with them.

"The thing about Gorey is that it's a great town with a strong community spirit but I was on the outside of all that. I didn't know anyone. My wife was getting to know a few people. I recognised a few faces but that was it. I came home, had dinner and got into bed. I didn't have any connections to the place. Between work and the driving, I didn't have time for hobbies. By the weekends, I'd just try and grab some sleep to try and recharge a little bit," says Gordon.

"I never went to a psychiatrist but I did feel I was becoming depressed. The frustration of doing the same thing every day and not getting much out of it was hard. There didn't seem to be much of a payoff for all the work. I started worrying because the only contact I had with people was on Facebook. I was losing touch with people. I felt like I was doing a lot of work, but I didn't feel like it was leading anywhere.

"I was keeping things ticking over; the mortgage was getting paid but I didn't feel like I was achieving anything. As much as anything else, it was intensely boring. There were hours and hours of nothing much happening except concentrating on the red lights in front of you," he says.

Gordon says the day he knew something had to change was when he crashed the car one morning. There had been a crash up ahead and he careered into it. The week before, a man of a similar age had died in a crash not far from where Gordon had his accident. In shock, with minor whiplash, he decided he needed to change his life.

"It made me think about the risks I was taking just to earn a wage. I thought it could have very easily have been me in that car," he says.

He began searching for something closer to home and he came across a company based in Gorey called Innovate, an IT solutions company. After a couple of rounds of interviews, he joined the company just over a year ago as part of the technical support team. In the space of a year, his life has been completely transformed.

"I can have breakfast with the kids. In the seven years I was commuting, I don't think the kids ever saw me eat breakfast. I don't leave home until 8.30am. After years of staring at people's brake lights, I can walk to work in 20 minutes or if I cycle, I'm there in six minutes. I'm getting to know people in the town. I'll pass them on my way to work most mornings and I can have a bit of a chat with them," says Gordon.

"Because I'm only down the road, I have energy when I go home in the evening. I've started coaching with Gorey Hockey Club on a Friday. I coach the 10 to 12 year olds, and my eldest son, Aidan, is in that group. I love it and the kids are really fun to be around, and then I meet their parents so you can see the start of a few friendships there," he says.

Gordon has also begun to volunteer as a CoderDojo mentor, teaching children basic coding on Saturday mornings in the local community school. The change in work life has given his wife Ciara more time for herself, too. She's a keen runner and she has lots more time to pursue things for herself instead of always having to be home.

"Now I'm back at the same time every evening, it's easier to plan things. It's all a bit more relaxed. Mentally, I'm in a much better place. At weekends we'll go out together as a family for a walk or do the shopping. I'm glad this came along when it did. You can do the commute for a while. Then you realise you can't and that you're going nowhere. The commute just sucks the joy out of everything," he says.

The mental health effect

Research now shows that commuting long hours is bad for our health. Britain's Royal Society for Public Health linked longer commuting times with increased stress, higher blood pressure and BMI, and reduced time available for health-promoting activities such as cooking, exercising and sleeping.

The Health in a Hurry report, published in the summer of 2016, also found that the long-term impact of long travel to work times also reduced mental well-being.

Census 2016 figures from the Central Statistics Office show that one in 10 commuters - almost 200,000 people - spend an hour or more commuting to work, representing a 31pc increase in five years. And the figures show that as the economy continues to recover after the crash with more people at work, the housing crisis and high cost of city living are forcing people to live further away from work.

The ESRI has warned that if the current pattern of economic growth continues, it will lead to a further gap in prosperity between Dublin and the rest of the country. In Dublin, it expects, this will lead to additional housing demand and increased long-distance commuting.

The Government's ambitious Project Ireland 2040 development plan is the blueprint for how the country will develop over the next 20-plus years with a focus on rural Ireland and the development of regional centres. Launched last month, it's an attempt to balance the economic growth scales between Dublin and the rest of the country.

Behind the scenes - and without the fanfare of a big budget plan - small companies around the country are doing their bit to bring prosperity and jobs to the regions and allowing people from rural areas to have a good quality of life and a good job without having to sit in traffic to get there.

When Gordon Jones joined Innovate, he joined at a time the company was in the middle of a recruitment drive. The IT solutions company introduced the concept of "de-commuting" to try to get more people to join their tech hub in Gorey. It began advertising on roadsides, asking commuters travelling from Dublin to Wexford why they were punishing themselves with hours on the road when they could be working in a growing local company.

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Learning curve: Mia O'Loughlin. Photo: Patrick Browne

Chief marketing officer with the company, Mia O'Loughlin, who is originally from Gorey, says she never thought when she moved back to her hometown, she would have the opportunity she has now. After spending years working in marketing departments of blue-chip Irish companies in Dublin, the move back to Gorey with her husband and three children was for quality of life reasons and to be near her elderly parents. But she knew her career would take a hit in the move.

When her marriage broke up over three years ago, she also knew with certainty she would have to go back into full-time work and dreaded the impact of a long trek to work in Dublin on her three daughters Dervla (15), Mia (14) and Zoe (12).

While she did some consulting work, a year ago she joined Innovate where she says she was struck by the passion of MD Jim Hughes about building a digital hub in the south east by tapping into the reservoir of talent literally driving up the road every day.

"It became obvious that there were many people who didn't know about us. When you're commuting, you just sleep here and you're not necessarily hearing about us. We put a big sign on a container on the side of the road on the M11 as it was then. It said if you're sick of commuting, come and work for us. As a company we can fulfil people's career ambitions while also giving them a quality of life," says Mia.

"The last year has been a steep learning curve for me in terms of the industry. It has given me a sense of myself back as it allows me to have a career in Gorey. I thought about going back up the motorway, but I didn't know how that was going to fit with my family. Innovate has allowed me to have a relationship with my children that I don't think I would have if I was on the road. That bond I have with them now sets the scene for later life," she says.

Employee-friendly policies, coupled with a high-tech workspace, will see the company double its 40-strong workforce over the next three years. Some employees even travel daily from central Dublin, preferring the stress and traffic-free commute to the alternatives available in the capital.

When Breid Gallagher (42) left her hometown of Dungloe in Co Donegal many years ago, she never imagined that she could come home to find a quality job in the town where she grew up. With a background in manufacturing, she was working for a medical company in Galway, living in Athenry and commuting to the city for work.

On the way she'd drop her children Harry (5) and Niall (3) to the crèche before hitting the road for work. It was a daily battle to get to work on time with the same uphill struggle against the traffic on the way home to make the crèche for 6pm. While Breid says Athenry is only a 30-minute journey by car from Galway, queues of traffic in rush hour meant the journey often took an hour.

"A typical day would see me sitting outside the crèche before it opened with the kids because I knew I had to beat the traffic. I was lucky I had a sister living nearby who could help me, but I was constantly running. By the time I got home in the evening at 6.30pm with young children, they're ready for bed and you're tired out," she says.

After the birth of her third child Aimee (2), Breid and her partner PJ decided to move back to Donegal where PJ is also from. Within a couple of months of leaving her job, she got lucky and landed a job with medical devices company Randox Teoranta, a short distance away from her family home in Dungloe.

Growing up near family

"Now I'm driving over a back road to work looking out to sea. For years I never thought this would be possible. My eldest son is settled in school. PJ is from Loughanure where they speak all Irish. Now when the children meet up with their cousins, they are chatting between Irish and English. To have them growing up here near their cousins is great," says Breid.

"The younger two are in crèche in Dungloe. They all come with me in the mornings. It's a 10-minute drive through the countryside and I'm still surprised when I see the view coming into Dungloe looking out to sea over Burtonport. It's stunning. I didn't appreciate it when I was young," she says.

Breid says it struck her just how much the move felt right one day when she picked the kids up from school and crèche, bought some ham and rolls in the shop and headed to the beach for an impromptu picnic on the way home.

"The opportunity to continue my career and the variety of roles I have within the company is great. I've worked in industry for 20 years and I've never come across the variety of skill sets we have in our workplace. These are really skilled jobs and it's a great atmosphere to work in," she says.

Like Breid, the plant's head of research and development, Ciarán Richardson, originally from Gweedore, had left home many years earlier to study biotechnology in NUI Galway before moving to Wales for further study and then to Dundee in Scotland for work. He had all but given up on his dream of someday coming back to Donegal to raise his own family.

Now he and his wife Bríd are preparing to build a home for them and their four children Úna (9), Nia (6), Cormac (4) and Mícheál, who is just five months old, in the townland of Knocknastoller, not far from Dungloe.

One of 120 full-time staff, over half of whom are in R&D, Ciarán says the fact that Randox Teoranta chose to locate in Dungloe meant he had the opportunity to pursue his career at a high level and have a great quality of life.

"The big thing I've noticed is the quality of life for the children. This is home for them now. The children are surrounded by their cousins. The two older girls go to the gaelscoil in Gweedore and we are close to both our families. I thought there was zero chance of me returning here after the career path I'd taken," says Ciarán.

"My drive to work takes me 20 minutes. It's a time I really enjoy. There's no traffic and I'm surrounded by mountains. It's a time I use to declutter my mind. I find it therapeutic," he says.

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Virtual reality: Shane Loughlin (left) and Keith Moran at SL Controls in Collooney, Co Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

When Shane Loughlin and Keith Moran set up their business SL Controls, a specialist software integration firm in 2002, they knew they wanted to do something different and stay living in the area where they were born and bred. Now they employ 85 people with offices in Sligo, Galway, Dublin, Limerick and Birmingham but their HQ is in Collooney, Co Sligo.

When Shane goes to work in the morning, he makes the short journey from the home he shares with his wife Siobhán in the townland of Ballintogher to his studio office just outside. From his desk he looks out over rolling countryside under the shadow of Ben Bulben.

Technological developments allow him to do what he does where he does it and he believes that with a change in mindset on the part of managers, more people in service industries like IT could leave the stress of commuting behind them.

"It's feasible and possible to locate anywhere in the regions. The only significant barrier that we see is when a customer or employer is not used to the concept of managing virtual teams," says Shane.

For their business with numerous employees in various locations, they schedule virtual meetings when they need to have them."One of the main reasons why remote working or having dispersed teams in different locations doesn't take off is due to managers not being comfortable with it, but the technology has been around since 2002 to make it possible," says Shane.

He says the term "working from home" is not fit for purpose because home is not a suitable place to work from. He says having a place to work from - he has a studio office - means he is at his desk before 8. And nobody in their company is allowed to work in a dispersed team until they have been trained in the discipline.

He and Keith are currently working with Sligo IT to try and teach the methods of working as part of a dispersed team and to show people how to provide their services remotely. "The concept of training people in service provision makes your location irrelevant. The technology is not the barrier to this, the human is. The person providing the service would work business hours, they need to be available and it needs to be business as usual," says Shane.

He says advances in technology provide "immersive solutions" so if you are physically not in one location, you can be there virtually using a webcam. This technology also makes it possible for managers to observe a person's productivity. Using simple tools like Skype for Business, managers are able to monitor keyboard activity so they can tell is someone is not working, he explains. It means being available in front of your webcam and certainly not in your pyjamas, he says.

Shane believes decision makers and governments have been too focused on "jobs" in the traditional sense without having any focus on service. And he says until we make service provision more of a priority, employers won't pay for people to be anywhere but under their noses. "The change is not that hard once the decision makers get to grips with it," he says.

DAILY COMMUTE IN NUMBERS

1.9 million

The number of us who commute to work

28.2 minutes

Average travel time, up 1.6 minutes on 2011 figures

1.2 million

The number of people who commute by car

200,000

People whose commute is longer than one hour, up almost a third in five years

81,897

Parents with children under 15 who spent an hour or more commuting to work

365,000

Number of us who leave for work before 7am

*Source: CSO Census 2016

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