Coworking spaces offer amenities for clients who want to exercise, record a podcast, or play with their dog in the same place they work. So why is it so hard to find one with childcare?
It’s not an impossible model: several such businesses run successfully in UK, Germany, Mexico, and many US states. But they’re few and far between, and there’s certainly nothing as ubiquitous as WeWork catering to working parents in this way. (For all of WeWork’s aggressive expansion, childcare doesn’t appear part of its near future. A company spokesperson would say only that it was “actively exploring options,” but wouldn’t elaborate.)
There’s a reason more coworking spaces don’t offer onsite childcare. Based on conversations with people who do offer the combo, have done so in the past, or have attempted to do at one point or another, it’s clear: operating these two low-margin businesses together is really, really hard.
The biggest hurdle isn’t the coworking part of the equation—it’s the kids. In the US, the licenses that allow places like gyms and Ikea to offer on-site babysitting typically limit the number of hours a child can be in care, with many states permitting only two-hour stints. That’s not practical for a working parent (though there are stories of desperate parents dropping kids off at Småland, Ikea’s one-hour free babysitting service, and working in short bursts in the wifi-connected café.)
State laws require daycares to maintain a specific ratio of staff to children. To make sure they have enough staff on hand (and that they’ll have money to pay them), a site needs to know exactly how many children they’ll have in care each day, which clashes with the drop-in, flexible ethos that draws many people to cowork. And even when there are paying customers willing to commit to a regular schedule, quality childcare workers and the space needed to accommodate their work are costly and logistically daunting. It’s not an amenity that can be easily dropped into the business plan of a coworking space.
Creating a coworking space culture that feels equally inviting to working parents and workers without children can be a challenge as well. Then there’s security. “It’s one thing when you’re worried about people’s computers and IP. It’s another when you’re worried about people’s children,” says Iris Kavanagh, an early employee at the coworking company NextSpace. In 2013, she helped launch NextKids, a San Francisco space offering on-site childcare. The site eventually closed due to logistic and financial considerations.
Melissa Tapper Goldman explored on-site childcare when preparing to open the Village Works, a coworking space she co-founded outside of Boston, but ultimately decided it made more sense for her and her customers to work with local childcare providers instead. The site refers members to local daycare centers with flexible schedules, and has a relationship with the play space three doors down from the building.
“As compelling as childcare/cowork was, it wasn’t going to be a right fit for a community that was already solving the childcare issue in other ways,” Goldman says.
Tiffany Frye is a co-executive director at Nido, a coworking space in Durham, North Carolina that offers an onsite Montessori preschool for members’ children. Its current license allows only half-day preschool, though it’s working toward a full-time one. The daycare is run as a co-op, where parents help out at the space a few hours a week to save costs. It’s a perfect fit for members who have the option to work flexibly, as many people in North Carolina’s Research Triangle do, and want to meet a community of like-minded working parents. It takes trust and a sense of safety to make it all come together successfully, Frye says—but when it does, the benefits are great.
“When you come to Nido, you’re all there. You’re dealing with your child having a tantrum about washing his hands, and then you’re jumping on a conference call,” she says with a laugh. “That vulnerability . . . it opens us up to connection. You just can’t hide anything. It’s all out there.”