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Extreme commuting: How does 700 kilometres sound?

Paul Milkman, senior vice-president, head of technology risk management and InfoSec at Toronto-Dominion Bank, spends Sunday through Thursday in Toronto but then flies home to spend with his family who still live in Maryland.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

If you thought your commute was long, consider Janeen Speer's more than 670-kilometre trip to work.

Ms. Speer recently accepted an exciting new job in Vancouver. The hitch is that she and her family live in Calgary. Her solution? She's decided to travel between the two cities, spending part of the week in Vancouver and her weekends at home.

As the new director of leadership and organizational development at Lululemon Athletica, Ms. Speer anticipates her new schedule will look something like this: Leave home about 5:30 a.m. on Mondays to catch a flight to Vancouver; be at her office by 8:30 (crossing the time zone allows her to gain an hour). Stay at a rented condo while in the city. On Thursday evenings, travel in reverse, returning to Calgary in time to tuck two daughters, ages 2 and 5, in bed.

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Relocating the entire family to accommodate her job wasn't a suitable option, she says, since her husband works in the oil and gas industry in Alberta.

"For us, this allows him to maintain the career that he's worked really hard to build," she says. "And, in our minds, it's a feasible solution to give me also the opportunity that I'm looking for and not stunt my career."

This unconventional commuter lifestyle is certainly not for everyone. But rather than sacrifice career opportunities or the comforts of home, some are dividing their time between two locations.

In the United States, media reports suggest that, spurred by the recession and limited employment opportunities, extreme commuting has become an attractive, albeit imperfect, option for Americans who don't want to uproot their families and disrupt their personal lives. According to the last available data from the 2006 census, only about 1 per cent of Canadians worked in a different province than where they live. But there are signs extreme commuting is on the rise in Canada as well.

Camilla Jadhav, general manager of the Level Furnished Living extended-stay hotel in Vancouver, says the demand for rental suites from ultra-long-distance commuters seeking a regular place to stay during the work week is "absolutely huge." Several of the hotel's long-term clients commute from as far as Toronto each week, flying home on the weekends, she says.

At Toronto's One King West Hotel & Residence, director of sales and marketing Matt Black says he's also seen a growing clientele of extreme commuters. Part of the appeal, he suggests, is the ability to maintain a certain lifestyle that wouldn't necessarily be possible if one were to relocate to a more expensive city for work.

"They've got their space, they've got their land, you know, you can have your two-car garage," he says. "Trying to get something like that downtown, you're going to be paying through the nose."

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The technology that allows employees to stay in touch with both work and family remotely as well as a work culture that now embraces greater flexibility also make extreme commuting more practicable.

Although the travelling can get tedious, extreme commuters say they find that the geographic division between their professional and domestic spheres allows them to better devote their energy to both.

Paul Milkman, a senior vice-president in technology at Toronto-Dominion Bank, says that as a result of his weekly travel between his office in Toronto and his home in Potomac, Md., he's more focused when he's on the job. When he's in Toronto between Sunday and Thursday evenings, he's able to work up to 12 hours a day, relatively uninterrupted, and on Fridays, he works from his U.S. home.

"My productivity is much higher," says Mr. Milkman, who has been doing the commute for two years. "I don't have to save up any social energy for family stuff, 'cause there isn't any. That sounds sort of cold, but it's true."

When he's at home, he says, he values the time he spends with his wife and their two teenage children more than ever. "Frankly, the quality of time is better than it was when we had a regular sort of 8-to-6 schedule, when I'd be home every night for dinner."

Ms. Speer says she, too, finds that being out of town for several days at a time doesn't detract from her family life. Although she misses her husband and children when she's gone, she says, she makes sure to devote her attention to them when she's home. "We're not sitting around watching TV. We're out doing fun things and playing, and enjoying each other's company."

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Ms. Speer knows that there will be certain family moments she'll miss out on. But the important thing, she says, is to be present for the big events. She recently rescheduled a professional course, for example, to stay in Calgary to attend her daughter's dance recital.

Text messages, phone calls and Skype conversations will allow her to communicate with them daily, and having an understanding spouse is also key to making her commute possible, she says.

When proposing the scenario to her husband, she says, "His exact words were, 'Vancouver is totally doable.' … He's like, 'This is a reflection on the strength of our relationship and who we are for each other. And I think it's great.' "

It's not just those with families electing to adopt the extreme commuting lifestyle. Nancy Creedon, who operates her own company Creedon Consulting, is single and has been commuting between Toronto and her home in New York for the past seven months as a consultant for TD.

From Monday to Thursday, she stays at the same hotel in Toronto and flies back to New York for the weekends. "The hotel is never home, but it's not bad," she says, adding she's quickly become accustomed to living out of a suitcase.

"If anything, the commute has been much easier than I would have anticipated," Ms. Creedon says. "Do I love it? No. Nobody in their right mind would love it. But it really isn't bad."

The balancing act

Considering an extreme commute? Those who do it share how they make it work:

Don't miss the big family moments: Paul Milkman of Toronto-Dominion Bank says he misses more of his son's hockey games than he would if he worked closer to home. But he makes sure to be there for the big events. "Family is always No. 1," he says.

Set a timeline: "The key for us mentally is … us saying we are committed without question to doing it this way for two years, at which time we'll evaluate," says Janeen Speer of Lululemon Athletica.

Work hard, but rest easy: "Actively manage your schedule and your work, so that when you're home, you're truly home. You're not just physically home," consultant Nancy Creedon says.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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