The traditional Irish office isn’t without its merits: there’s always water-cooler chat, cupcakes on someone’s birthday, and the joy of switching off the computer at day’s end. Yet with the economic landscape shifting beneath our feet, the Irish workplace has moved beyond the office. The sittingroom, attic, garden shed . . . these are the places where people are now spending their working days.
A 2014 survey, carried out on behalf of O2 Ireland, found that about 44 per cent of employees work from home at least one day a month; a third of respondents had set up a dedicated workspace at home; and a third of those who already enjoy flexible working arrangements said they expected the trend to gather pace in the future.
The benefits of working remotely are bountiful: a better work-life balance, increased flexibility, and the opportunity to kick the dreaded commute into touch.
And, as Booterstown-based voiceover artist/radio presenter Mark Manning notes: “You can feasibly sit in your underpants, reading books for audible.com and few are any the wiser.”
Formerly a corporate salesman, Manning now uses his attic as a recording studio for his voiceover work, which runs the gamut from apps and novels to corporate literature and cartoons. The office set-up is simple: a €2,500 Neumann U87 microphone, desk and laptop.
“In this job, because of the acoustics, it’s a case of the less space, the better,” he explains. “I know voiceover artists who have a set-up under the stairs. Years ago, voiceover artists would have to travel to studios in big cities like London to record. Now clients email me a script, and I email them back a file.
“I’m a bit of a (night) owl, and because many of my clients are international, I’m on call 24/7,” he adds. “But the beauty is that you set your own hours.”
Save for the occasional Skype call to a client or author, working solo in the attic is a lonely enough outpost, says Manning. Still, regular radio shows on Christmas FM and Spirit FM have become something of a social outlet.
“I do miss people, but in my estimation you get more done working from home,” he surmises. “There’s more distraction in a workplace, between politics and emotions. Here, it’s a more pure relationship between you and the client. I’ve done the five-star hotels and the Mercedes, and now I’m very much my own motor.”
Elsewhere on Dublin’s southside, wedding dress/occasion-wear designer Yvonne Harrington runs her business from a studio at the front of the family home in Dalkey, where the sittingroom once was.
“When I started off in 2009, my daughter was just a year old, and working from home meant that I could work more easily in the mornings,” she recalls. “Three years ago, we renovated the house and we moved the living space to the back of the house. Everyone knows that this is my work studio and the kids are not allowed to play in here. When I come to work, I close the door and leave everything else behind.”
Harrington was mindful that the 200sq ft space look less like someone’s sitting room and more like a working designer’s studio. Gorgeous dresses and samples cover the wall, mannequins sport wedding attire, and the high table (for cutting fabrics) and industrial sewing machine are poised for action.
Flexibility is a true boon for Harrington, yet there are downsides to having a workspace at home: “I don’t work in the afternoons as I do the school runs and take a break to do homework and have time with the kids,” she says. “But the work I do is deadline-orientated, and if I don’t get the work finished I don’t get paid. I have to work evenings and Saturdays and occasionally get up at 6am to get work done, but at least I don’t have to journey to a premises. I try to restrict appointments to Tuesdays and Wednesdays but given the nature of what I do, it doesn’t always work out like that.”
Beth-Ann Smith is head chef at Waterford Castle and co-runs the nearby Summerhouse Café, but has also found the time to co-found the successful Lismore Food Company with her partner Ken.
The couple managed to create a full office separate to the rest of the living space, on a mezzanine level overlooking the sitting room.
“To rent a space would be bonkers – besides, there aren’t really office spaces to rent in the countryside,” she says. “It would be lovely to have another space to work from, but this space is perfect for us, with calming and lovely views.”
Yet working and living with one’s partner in both life and business can have its drawbacks: “Certainly, we’ve had to ban corporate speak, but it’s really hard to stop because we’re so interested in what we do,” she laughs.
Does being in the home office mean automatically getting ‘in the zone’?
“I definitely have a problem with disciplining myself,” admits Smith. “Things distract me randomly, and I often need to pull my head back to focus on the job when I’m doing the more mundane company jobs like crunching numbers. But when I’m coming up with packaging designs or recipes, it’s a joy to work.”
The home office is not the just the preserve of the artisanal entrepreneur. A growing number of international companies have warmed to the idea of employing digital nomads and telecommuters. Among them is David Rochford, who previously worked as a project manager for Twitter from his home in Ongar, Dublin. Now working for Microsoft, Rochford purchased a cabin from LogHouse.ie, installed it at the end of his garden, and built the wood furniture and panelling himself. The overall effect is clean, woody and minimalist.
“It’s snug as a bug,” he enthuses. “It’s insulated, has Dyson heaters, a desk that holds big monitors and a big-screen TV for conference calls.”
Also in the room are guitars, amps and a cosy couch. “Oh, it’s an out-and-out man-cave,” he laughs. “But from Monday to Friday, it’s very much a workspace.
“The whole reason I went with a home office as opposed to just working at the kitchen table is that I can switch properly into work mode,” he adds. “I could never sit in the livingroom, because inevitably you’ll put on the TV.”
Still, working for US companies can often mean that the hours are longer than a typical 9 to 5 setup: “I’ve only ever worked for West Coast companies, and by the time they’re in work, it’s 5pm your time. I get to take a break in the afternoon to go for a swim or walk the dog, then get revved up again to do a solid four hours.”
Given the gossamer-fine line between work and home, it’s often not unusual for family or friends to visit Rochford at home in ways they might not in a typical workplace scenario, yet he has a canny solution for even that.
“I have CCTV installed, and if people call to the house I just don’t answer the door,” he smiles. “It’s a work day, sorry. That’s how I operate and fortunately, most of my friends know that.”
The kitchen at Killowen Farm is the heart and hub of the Dunne family’s Co Wexford dairy farm and yoghurt making business. It’s where everything happens, where board and management meetings are held and the products are tested, where buyers from across Ireland do business and where chefs from Dubai, Singapore, the UK and USA feel at home.
“We don’t have a boardroom in the manufacturing area,” Pauline Dunne, sales and marketing director for the company, explains, “so the kitchen is where we welcome people. Because we’re in the middle of the country, customers have to travel to get to us. When they arrive we sit around the table, and my mother makes tea and serves her traditionally made scones, fruit cake and apple tart – rhubarb in the spring.”
At the rear of a Georgian farmhouse that has been home to nine generations of Dunne family farmers, the Killowen kitchen is a proper farmhouse kitchen in every sense. It’s where everything happens; “always did,” Pauline says. She should know. She grew up there, one of a family of nine born to Mary and Tom Dunne, both now semi-retired and wholly involved. “Mary is queen of the kitchen,” Pauline says.
Mary Dunne’s kitchen has a 35-year old AGA, where she does her renowned baking, a wood-burning stove, and a 12-seater mahogany table. Today’s AGA replaced an even older model and is, Pauline says, “the focal point without which Mary could not survive. It’s always on and is what makes the kitchen the warm place it is, in every sense.” With a sofa in front of the stove, a scattering of chairs and cushions, and a traditional quarry-tiled floor, the kitchen makes an amiable living/dining/meeting/business space.
For all its busyness the Killowen kitchen is, Pauline says, "a quiet space". This, along with the warm welcome and traditional baking, is much appreciated by buyers from such as Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel, Dublin's Merrion and Marker hotels, Kelly's of Rosslare, Dunne's Stores, Tesco, Avoca and Donnybrook Fair. There is also the fact that Killowen Farm is, as Pauline points out, the only farm in Ireland using its own milk to make yoghurt. Mary Dunne marvels at it all. "I never thought I'd be making tea in my kitchen for so many people from so many countries."