Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In the booming co-working industry, some companies are standing out by opening their space up for children and working parents alike.
In a D.C. co-working space on a recent Friday afternoon, a man worked on his laptop in a quiet area with sleek chairs, phone booths, and a conference room. It looked like what you’d expect from any co-working space, except for the screens showing video of a more hectic scene downstairs.
On the first floor, toddlers ambled around slides, played with blocks, and plucked ersatz food items from a pint-sized kitchen. The two floors together make up Elemeno, a D.C. co-working company that’s part of the industry’s latest trend: combined spaces for work and child care.
The business of co-working has boomed in recent years, growing from only a handful of co-working spaces worldwide in 2007 to around 14,000 today. Led by companies like WeWork and Spaces, the sector’s incredible growth is fueled in large part by rising numbers of remote workers and freelancers in search of workspaces outside of their homes. And while telecommuting and freelancing may offer parents some degree of flexibility when it comes to child care, most co-working spaces don’t.
That’s where Elemeno co-founders Liza Fox and Michael Campbell saw an opportunity. They say their customers who use the child care option generally have full-time care that has fallen through—a nanny is sick, for example—or are freelancers who are looking for a few hours a day or less.
“One of our members makes children’s clothing and sells it on Etsy,” Fox says. “She doesn’t make her products here—she can do that at home—but she sometimes needs two uninterrupted hours to get her accounting in order. Our play buddies watch her 3-year-old while she works.” Another member, a stay-at-home dad with a 2-year-old, recently told Fox his freelance career is picking up, so he’s thinking about booking three hours of child care each weekday.
“Our members tell us how they appreciate that they can do their jobs and raise their kids at the same time,” Campbell says. Fox adds: “We help make the life of parents of young children easier.”
Of an estimated 4,000 co-working spaces in the U.S., the consulting firm Emergent Research estimates only 25 or 30 offer some form of child care on site. Firm president Steve King says the concept is currently “popping up at a rapid clip,” however. The Wing recently opened “The Little Wing” at its Soho location in Manhattan. Moms can book a babysitter for $25 for two hours while they toil on another floor. While WeWork doesn’t currently offer child care, its Chelsea location in Manhattan hosts WeGrow, a school that teaches kids to be entrepreneurs.
At Elemeno, $189 per month gets unlimited use of the work and play space. For an extra $12 an hour, families can schedule a babysitter—or “play buddy”—to care for their little one, for up to three hours a day. Elemeno employs five staff members who take play buddy appointments. Their backgrounds range from early childhood education to customer service management, they are subject to background checks, and are certified for CPR and first aid. Elemeno keeps a three-to-one ratio of kids to caregivers for children 3 to 6 years old; for kids under 2, the ratio is two to one.
Those using such services say they are thrilled to have found flexible, convenient child care that’s more in line with their needs—and more affordable—than full-time care, which can cost almost as much as rent in some U.S. cities. The option, they say, also helps working moms navigate motherhood and their careers. “I’m able to comfortably be a mom and a worker at the same time,” Elizabeth Martins, 33, told MarketWatch of the co-working-and-child-care space she frequents in Philadelphia. “It’s the answer to the age-old work-life balance problem.”
While Elemeno and similar outfits do seem to fill a gap for some parents, some question what effects those spaces might have on children. Katie Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who studies contingent labor in cities, says the trend is a symptom of the crisis of child care in the U.S.
“Children need stability and regularity,” she says, “and for that to happen, child care needs to be steady, affordable for all, and part of society’s infrastructure. This type of ad hoc care strikes me as a window into what’s not working in current labor and child care practices.”
Kathy Reschke, an expert on child care at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that works to ensure the well-being and healthy development of babies and toddlers, says consistency of the caregiver, schedule of events, environment and materials, expectations and rules, and other children are key for care to support kids’ development.
“The more of these elements that are different each time the child returns to the setting, the more stressful the situation will be,” she says, adding that if, for instance, the caregiver is different the second time a child comes to the space but everything else is the same, it will be somewhat stressful, but less so than if there are also different children, materials, and expectations for behavior.
The bottom line, Reschke says, is that “a program that offers care on a more temporary basis should strive to provide stability and consistency for as many of those aspects of the caregiving experience as possible.”
At Elemeno, Fox says she and Campbell understand that consistency and predictability are important for early childhood development. “We invested in creating an educational and stimulating, yet consistent, play space,” she says, noting that they don’t allow drop-in child care so the children can develop a clear sense of routine and expectations. “This gives them the confidence to come toddling excitedly through our doors ready to explore and play each time,” she says.
Funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation was provided to support our project "The Kids’ Zone."