A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Fast Company to talk about our family-friendly work environment and culture. One of my biggest realizations during the call was how so much of our work environment exists only because Chris and I have kids. I can’t be certain that Wildbit would be as family friendly if Chris and I didn’t have our girls.
It reminds me of the story Sheryl Sandberg shared from her time at Google in her book “Lean In.” She was pregnant and coming into a meeting, and there was no parking. She had to park far from the entrance, and it was hard for her to get to the office. Sheryl went to meet Sergey Brin and told him they need closer parking for expectant mothers. They added it almost right away. The point wasn't that Google was unfriendly to expectant mothers. It's that often, until senior leadership has an experience, it may not recognize the company's shortcomings.
As an entrepreneur, I know that an inevitable part of growing a business is learning as you go. To help some of my friends who don't have kids, here’s some perspective and tips on how to make your company more welcoming to parents.
Kids get sick, they have school functions or trips, they have off of school for all bank holidays (and then some). As a parent, you need to be able to react to these things accordingly. In a perfect work environment, you give your team the flexibility of their time to be able to accommodate those sick days. You can gain this flexibility by allowing remote work on your team. Or, if you work in an office, give your team the confidence to leave work early if the nurse calls.
I often see in Slack that someone is stepping away to greet their child from the bus stop. Or chaperoning a trip. Just last week, Chris and I left early to see our oldest be a “real actress” in her first theater performance (she’s a Kindergartener).
In places without this flexibility, you’re actually doing yourself more damage. If a call from the nurse is greeted with “Shit, who's going to pick them up”, you’ve caused stress and anxiety. This will absolutely make that person lose focus on the task at hand. They’re not going to be present mentally, so why ask them to stay?
Unless you’re saving lives, nothing is urgent at work. Everything can wait. But a sick kid needs hugs and someone to help them blow their nose.
Honest working hours
We have a rule that you can’t work more than 40 hours a week. I want everyone to go home and do the other stuff that’s important, like playing with their kids or cooking dinner. We’ve been a profitable company this way for 15 years. We don’t just say it though, we live it. We lead by example (Chris and I go home at 5) and we spend a lot of time making sure our team isn’t working too much.
You can do it your way. Some companies have 4-day work weeks, and that’s great too. Just make sure your team isn’t spending all their time with you. They need to be spending a lot of time at home with their families and their hobbies.
And it needs to be more than just an official policy, the entire company has to buy in to the idea and support the concept. If people working remotely or taking care of their kids draws eye-rolling, there may be a larger problem.
Friendly office environment
We like to have family happy hours on a semi-regular basis. This brings spouses and kids into the office to get to know each other and see where parents work. It also does the job of getting the team together without making the sacrifice of not having dinner with your family.
Try to find some space for kids to come into the office. Not everyone can have room for a playroom, but everyone has a conference room that can be kept open one day. Things happen. Sometimes there’s a snow day and you need to be in the office. We’ve had kids in the office since the start, and I promise the worries you have about noise or distraction are not as serious as your imagination. Your team will love knowing that in a pinch, there’s a safe place for them to bring their children.
When doing the interview, we talked a bit about paternity and maternity leave. I’ll be honest, we don’t have a great policy (in that we don’t really have a policy) for family leave. We try to ensure that everyone spends time at home after a new addition to the family. In the most recent case, the dad worked from home for a while to help out his wife, even after he was done with paternity leave.
I’ve heard a lot that small companies really struggle with family leave, and I can really understand that. First, there’s the cost of paying someone to not be there. And then there’s the anxiety when you have only have one person who can do a specific task. But I challenge you to think past that. How much do you value this person? You want to make sure your team feels safe, especially to enjoy this huge change in their lives. Providing a family leave policy will show them how much you respect and value them in your company.
Instead, take this time to challenge your company to be less siloed and more flexible. You’ll usually have a good 6+ months to plan for this leave of absence, I’m sure you can find a way to cover the time off. Find someone temporarily, or have your team distribute the responsibilities. I guarantee you that any person who has an infant at home needs the time off to be productive. If you force them to work by either shortening the time-off, or by not paying them, they will not be giving you anywhere near 100% effort. Even while being physically present.
That same person can fall ill, and need time off immediately. You wouldn’t just fire someone if they needed six weeks off for surgery. It’s much harder to plan for an illness than a family leave for a new baby.
Why should you care?
For starters, because you you want to be a good person and great employer. And, for added bonus, being family-focused has given us a low turnover of team members and a lot of happy, healthy, excited people to work with. We’ve also noticed this focus has attracted some amazing people to our team who value a family-focused work environment. Not to mention, we have some really great WildBabies!
While work is important and helps fulfill us as individuals, family is a priority for most of the people that work for you. Work should enable us to get the most in our homes and with our families. As a leader, you should be helping your team go home on time, by removing obstacles throughout the day to help them get meaningful work done in 40 hours. In return you will get energetic, devoted and productive people to help you grow your business. Everyone wins.