As a repeat founder and now a new parent of a 19-month-old toddler, I have learned a lot in the past few months about the ins and outs of juggling parenting while running an early stage startup. And let me tell you, it isn’t easy.
It has been really tough for my wife and me to balance the needs of our high-pressure careers with our daycare arrangement. My daughter did not adjust well to daycare, leading her to get sick on a bi-weekly basis which caused havoc on our work schedules and resulted in a lot of stress for both of us.
Through my personal experience, as well as talking to a lot of friends who are also new parents and in the same boat, I’ve come to strongly believe that companies need to be thoughtful and deliberate about designing their culture to accommodate the unique needs and challenges of being a new parent.
Why hire parents?
Before we get into designing your company culture to accommodate new parents, let’s discuss why companies should work hard to hire and retain parents.
- Experience: Odds are that new parents are some of the more experienced candidates that a young company can greatly benefit from.
- Empathy: David Brooks mentions this in his award-winning book The Second Mountain. Typically, having kids shifts your focus from doing things for yourself to prioritizing your child (someone other than yourself). This is exactly what we need more of in our organizations—people who are focused on the needs of their team, providing mentorship and growth opportunities, and doing more for their peers. This will positively impact your culture and foster deeper trust.
- Patience: Becoming a parent, especially of a toddler, is the ultimate exercise of patience. This inherently can translate over to becoming a more patient leader and manager at work.
- Efficiency: Most parents end up having to become master jugglers of family and all other commitments. With limited time, parents must become efficient at everything they do. This will undoubtedly be an asset at any startup. Ask any mom or dad who handles the weekly calendar for a family with multiple children.
- Culture: Hiring people who are a different demographic from the typical Silicon Valley workforce of young single men will pay dividends to make your company culture more diverse. Having more maturity inhouse is better for overall growth and sustainability and will lessen the potential of building a frat-like startup culture.
Building a culture inclusive of parents
With that said, I’ve gathered some thoughts on how to make your company culture more understanding and accepting of new parents (and all parents for that matter) in hopes that it will get founders and company executives thinking about this—especially those who are not parents themselves.
1. Don’t have just a face-to-face-based culture. I’ve found that most parents are happy to be at the office from 9 to 5. But for some reason, 8 hours is not considered enough time in the office, unfortunately—especially in the Valley. I’d challenge a paradigm shift, where we stop considering it a badge of honor to see who can leave the office last, even when you’re not actually being that productive.
Parents can’t (and shouldn’t) spend endless hours in the office if they want to be around for their family. Often you will see parents spend less time in the office than employees who do not have families. You will regularly see parents arrive later or leave earlier than other team members due to childcare commitments (daycare drop off/pickups or having to relieve their nanny). Parents may also be strict about leaving at a certain time every day because of childcare commitments. This does not mean that parents are less driven or less productive employees. Parents just may have to work different hours and therefore become more efficient at what they do.
Encourage work from home (WFH) days. As long as an employee gets their work done, it frankly doesn’t matter where they are as long as they are reliable and responsive. I’ve found (children or no children) that building a culture that supports WFH days and flexible hours improves productivity and balances employee stress.
On this note though, because someone may be emailing at 9 PM (when their child is finally asleep) that doesn’t mean others need to respond at that hour. This flexibility should enhance productivity, not cause fire drills.
2. Expect to have sick days and unplanned work-from-home days. There are no two ways around this, especially if both parents are working and the kids go to daycare. Young kids get sick a lot, and a child’s well being is a parent’s number one responsibility. When your kid is sick, you have to be home, as daycare does not accept sick kids, and most backup care options are not set up for kids with high fevers or infectious diseases. I’ve seen combinations of both parents working from home and taking turns to do meetings or work, to one parent taking the hit at work to care for the kids. Understand that many of these occurrences aren’t in the parent’s control and, again, strive to build a culture that is accepting of these circumstances.
3. Don’t tell parents to find a nanny or alternative form of childcare (from the one they chose) to fit the needs of the business. Finding childcare is a stressful and lengthy process and there are probably countless hours of research that went into choosing the final childcare option for our daughter. Daycares and preschools in the Bay Area often have waitlists that are years long. At times, parents have to apply to preschools before their baby is born to get a spot.
Childcare is also an extremely personal choice, and just like you don’t tell folks what kind of food to eat or clothes to wear to work, don’t assume that everyone wants to get a nanny. There are a variety of reasons behind choosing childcare beyond pricing. Having a sense of security and focus on child development is primary in that regard. Instead, build a culture around collaboratively setting realistic goals that meet the needs of the business while respecting the parents choice of childcare.
Also, don’t push the parent to take on the additional financial burden of getting a nanny. Most startups are unable to pay market salary, and a nanny can cost anywhere between 2X to 2.5X the cost of daycare, which is already anywhere between $1.75K to 2K+ per month for an infant in the Bay Area. Finding a good nanny in places like San Francisco is incredibly hard due to the shortage of nannies. There are also issues around trust-building with a stranger that are too touchy for someone not directly involved in the childcare decision to understand.
Consider sponsoring a backup care option for parents as a company benefit. Having reliable backup care will allow parents to be more at ease when their kid is sick and help them work more productively when home.
4. Think about how you should accommodate the physical needs of a new mom. Even an extra conference room or having a dedicated room elsewhere in the building reserved for moms that are private goes a long way. A mother’s room is a must if you expect your employees to comfortably come back from leave since most working moms end up pumping breast milk multiple times a day to prevent mastitis. I’ve seen startups with 50–100 employees already with no plans to have a mother’s room.
5. Have proper health insurance and a documented parental leave policy. This is not a game when you have kids. Make sure you have a maternity and paternity plan in place. Make sure that dads also get time off and actually take it. I believe fathers sharing the parental workload equally to moms is the only way we change our culture around understanding what it takes to provide proper childcare for a family.
I’m a supporter of fully paid parental leave for all mothers and fathers in the world. And frankly, I’m appalled that the US has not adopted this policy at the federal level. WSJ recently discussed this topic, and it’s worth a read (paywall).
And if you agree that we need more dads spending time with their newborns and splitting the workload with moms, sign up for Alexis Ohanian’s fatherhood pledge here. The past two months with my baby has been amazing and such a fulfilling time in my life. Trust me, you are going to love it!
Bonus benefits idea: Have a concierge service for parents to get their ongoing childcare errands like diapers, formula, baby food, etc. done.
6. Don’t plan all team outings around drinking and activities that run late into the night. Parents often lack sleep and have to wake up early to take care of their kids. Being hungover and having to take care of a toddler at 6 am is not my idea of a good time. Plan some of your team building activities during the day/work hours. This will help parents a lot as they already have childcare planned for work hours and allow them to feel a part of the culture.
7. Try not to have last-minute schedule changes. Plan team activities and off-sites early, and communicate dates well in advance especially if they’re not during work hours. Please do not change the schedule often on parents and add last-minute meetings, especially in the evenings or early mornings when they have to either drop off/pick up their kids or relieve their nanny. This makes things stressful as parents will often need to juggle their childcare plans or have their partner take on the extra burden.
And if parents leave early from team events, don’t take it as a sign of them not being a team player. Every time one parent spends more time at work, the other parent is often on childcare duty. As parents, there is an emotional bank account that you are pulling from each time you ask your partner to do the extra hours so that you can spend time with your team or clients. You have to allow the parents to balance this bank account to have a happy home life and to be an effective employee.
8. Lastly, expect parents to be tired at work. New parents may wake up 3 to 4 times a night because their toddler is sick or having sleep regressions. Understand that they are probably not going to be at their peak capacity for “crushing it” at all times. This does not mean that they will never return to that capacity, but there will be periods where they are exhausted. Expect this and build empathy in the team to help parents during this short but difficult period in their lives.
I hope this list of tips helps you as founders and leaders to think more holistically about recruiting and retaining top talent. Millennial parents with young kids are a crucial employee demographic a lot of founders and CEOs will need to hire and retain to succeed in this competitive market. Some of these tips may seem very subtle or simple but trust me, parents will notice and appreciate it. I know I underestimated the importance of some of these things before my daughter came around.
Another point I wanted to make was that this movement should not stop at a surface level with just HR policies and posturing. Many parents have talked to me about feeling the undertone of bias in their companies and we need to take this further to train executives and management to be sensitive to the needs of parents, just like other manager sensitivity training that is currently offered at most companies.
And if I could close on one critical tip for founders it would be: If you are a co-founder without kids partnering with a founder (or executive) that has a family, make it an effort to hang out with their kids to build empathy for what it takes to be a parent and a co-founder or business leader. It will only strengthen your relationship and trust between each other and, hopefully, inherently your company culture.
Thank you to Cassie Pallesen, Afdhel Aziz, David Porter, Nigel Stevens, and Matthew Brown for reviewing and providing your feedback on drafts of this post.