Special thanks to Anum Zahid for the hand drawn image

Onsite Childcare — How To Get Started, Lessons from the Pioneers

Amel Zahid
7 min readJul 31, 2018


We are all familiar with the African proverb — it takes a village to raise a child. In this day and age when work takes up a massive portion of our daily lives, the village surrounding our children shrinks considerably. I recently had the chance to tour some of the places that have done a remarkable job keeping the village and child together through onsite childcare facilities and showing us a different way of doing things. These companies are Patagonia, Cisco, and Clif Bar.

In my previous article, I spoke at length about the human need for locating childcare at workplaces to help achieve workforce diversity, higher retention, and engagement of employees — both men and women but especially women. In this article, I illustrate the real heartwarming impact of such facilities on worker well-being. Moreover, to make it all real, I address some challenges in establishing onsite childcare and show a path forward for progressive companies with case studies from pioneers in this field.

A Tale Of Three Companies

Patagonia, Cisco and Clif Bar all have fully functioning onsite childcare facilities, built to cater to their unique needs. Notably, Cisco — a tech company, has been running one of the largest centers for the past ten years. From 80 children at Patagonia to 800 children at Cisco’s centers, these companies have shown us that cost, scale, and any level of complexity can be overcome when we value caregiving. The result is a happy, engaged, productive and retained employee — of either gender.

Patagonia, a pioneer in the area of onsite childcare, is not only exemplary but rather also visionary in having built onsite childcare 35 years ago! The results three decades later reveal the impact this has on retention of women in the workforce — 100% of the women who have had children at Patagonia have returned to work, significantly higher than the 79%average in the US overall.The most significant win is a gender par workforce and leadership. About 50% of managers and senior leaders are women. This remarkable parity also extends to the board as well.

Patagonia takes immense pride in the fact that it is practically raising an entire future workforce. Parents with children in the program at Patagonia have been 25% less likely than the average Patagonia employee to leave the company over a given period. Cisco and Clif Bar, do not track this particular data point, but anecdotally attest to greater retention among employees that have children in the program.

“When our employees voluntarily leave the company, they leave in tears.” — Katelyn Johnson, Manager of Integrated Health, Cisco

So if it is so great a benefit why is everyone not doing it already?

Most tech companies that have considered building onsite daycares have raised capacity management; space allocation/zoning and cost as common roadblocks to building out onsite childcare. However, these are all solvable challenges, and I highlight some ways of addressing them using case studies of these companies that I recently toured and interviewed.

Challenge # 1: Scale and Capacity

Scale and capacity are prime concerns for many benefit teams — since no one wants to create a have/have-not divide within the company. On the flip side, starting a childcare center that caters to the needs of all employees from day one sounds overwhelming. The key to unlocking this is to plan for the eventual capacity needed but figuring out a staging plan that grows with the babies who become the center’s first occupants.

Cisco, given the size of its workforce, has a gigantic set up that hosts 31 classrooms, a platoon of 95 teachers on facility catering to up to 800 children in two locations — taking into account the need of the entire population of parents.

Patagonia’s Ventura location uses space creatively. Child care is spread out between a few buildings on campus and located in lobbies of some of the larger buildings complete with their separate entrances. What these examples show, us is that space and capacity can be planned around once we begin to entertain the idea creatively.

Regarding zoning and regulations, a lot has changed recently with rules needing a fresh pair of eyes to revisit them. Cities and zoning offices are willing to work with constraints companies have and often offer permits on a case by case basis doing their best to ensure that the facility is provided as they understand how vital onsite childcare centers are.

Challenge # 2: Complexity of Building and Running Onsite Childcare

It does require a bit of legwork to build out an onsite childcare facility. The critical thing to remember though is that the Silicon Valley has taken down more complex problems than this. It is not rocket science to set up a childcare center, nor as expensive as sponsoring a trip to Mars, first class.

There are a few different models for starting and operating onsite childcare facilities that allow companies the flexibility to choose a model that works for their needs. The models vary in their upfront costs, company involvement in day to day operations, hiring/staffing and enrollment.

All three companies that I toured, and interviewed, had figured out the best model that met their needs. In Patagonia’s case, the build-out was entirely done and run by Patagonia including curriculum design. Whereas, Cisco and Clifbar outsourced their onsite childcare operations to third-party providers.

Patagonia runs the Ventura child care center itself called the Great Pacific Child Development Center (GPCDC). All staff hired is Patagonia staff, and the company takes pride in caring for the future workforce diligently by allocating required resources.

Challenge # 3: The Return on Investment

A huge concern for many companies is that the costs of building out a childcare facility would be exorbitant and the operational costs would continue to hurt for years to come. Another concern is the complexity of adding on an entire operational unit having to do with managing facilities. However, there is a business case, contrary to widespread perception. Depending on the model the company decides to go along with, the costs of building and running the facility borne by the company can be traded-off with other variables (such as control over day to day operations).

Companies that have built onsite childcare and are running the centers themselves quote a return on investment from 91% of original costs at Patagonia, up to 125% at KPMG!

At Patagonia, the Ventura site recoups 91% of the cost ($500,000 through tax breaks, 30% through the value of retention, and 11% in employee engagement). As a percentage of all selling, general and administrative costs, it is .005%. The small out of pocket expense does not feel prohibitive.

Meanwhile, at Clif Bar and Cisco, the facility is run by third parties, as a regular childcare facility and is an independently operated business functioning on a pay-as-you-buy model that is pretty standard. Onsite childcare is very similar to other onsite amenities currently provided by tech companies, e.g., onsite cafeterias, salons and so on. The internal operations of hiring, staffing, managing facilities on a day to day basis are carried out by these partners at very little to no cost to the companies.

The Human Impact

Onsite childcare was built at all three companies because they placed value in child care. Recruitment and retention of moms AND dads followed.

Katelyn Johnson, who oversees Integrated Health at Cisco mentions that the motivation to build onsite childcare was not recruitment and engagement, rather an opportunity to help Cisco employees and to provide them with support wherever they need it. Onsite childcare is part of the circle-of-life benefits program where elder care and college planning are among other benefits that the company also provides.

Who would not want to work for them then?

Clif Bar encourages people to bring their true selves to work. Mothers are then able to be parents at work bringing themselves fully. Moreover, the result of this is remarkable. The sense of community that comes from meeting other people in the same boat brings the village together turning a workplace into a work-life-place.

While I was visiting Clif Bar, a mother had walked in for a short break, to play with her 8-month-old baby, before heading back to work. That it was possible was in itself a beautiful concept.

When Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s iconic founder, and his wife Malinda started the company, they started out with friends and family as employees, and they wanted to support them as they worked, and started their families.

The bottom line, you build onsite childcare addressing not the problems of parenthood but the human needs of parents.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. Once you go and see for yourself how amazing the environment and morale was at the three companies I visited, it is hard to accept that this cannot be replicated. The parent-child relationship is one of the most primordial of relationships and catering to it is only natural.

Visiting Patagonia, Clif Bar and Cisco, nothing seemed closer to nature than being in an environment that brought parents and children closer together. The benefits are far reaching considering the positive impact of the increased interaction between both parents and children and greater employee engagement at work. Moreover, those that weren’t parents, at Patagonia at least, were allowed to enjoy life their way — go surfing whenever they wanted.

Calling out to all progressive companies — what are you waiting for?

A special shout out to Kindercare for arranging tours of Clif Bar, and Cisco and to Patagonia folks for taking out the time to provide a tour of Patagonia’s onsite facility.



Amel Zahid

Challenger of existing paradigms. Advocate and agent of workplace redesign to empower women and parents in tech and beyond. Founder, Equitable Workplaces