Family-Centered Design Thinking

Three years ago, I was in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend my 35th high school reunion.

Women and Tech Forum at Mills College Moderated by the Author

I wanted to make the most of the trip so I set up meetings with people I’d interviewed in my ibook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, as well as other like-minded women. At Hackbright in Union Square, I met with Sharon Wienbar, who is a venture capitalist who supports women in tech and is featured in Lean On and Lead. I also had coffee with Katrina Alcorn in Oakland, author of Maxed Out, and coffee with another writer and advocate for women, Lisen Stromberg — in Palo Alto. I also finally got to meet my BlogHer editor Grace Hwang Lynch — in San Jose. It was wonderful to brainstorm with these amazing women. And though the context was different for every conversation, each was interested in concrete solutions to advance women and support a more family-friendly work world.

At some of the meetings, I presented my ideas around Family Centered Design℠ thinking, a conceptual framework for re-imagining our economy and society that I first introduced in Lean On and Lead. The point of Family Centered Design thinking is to reshape institutions, companies, services, products, infrastructures and education to meet the needs of the family rather than the other way around.

One great example of this framework was NextSpace/NextKids, a co-working space in Potrero Hill in San Francisco that provides childcare. In 2014, I had interviewed NextKids founder Diana Rothschild for Lean On and Lead. At the time, she was a mother of two, and in the interview, described the genesis of NextKids:

“…While Sophia was an infant, I continued to work from home, and either a babysitter or one of her grandparents would watch her while I worked at a café nearby. She wouldn’t take a bottle so I had to stay close enough to be able to come home every three hours to nurse her. This arrangement worked reasonably well, but I couldn’t make important calls from cafés because the environment was too loud.

“Once when Sophia was eight months old, I had a call with one of the largest food companies in the world about how they could source coffee more sustainably. It was a really big deal. As an independent professional, it’s sometimes hard to get access to big awesome projects like this, so I really wanted to do well. I timed the call during Sophia’s nap, while my mom watched her. Our house is not very big, so I was in the dining room on the call, while she slept in her bedroom. And forty-seven minutes into my call, Sophia woke up and started crying.

“Of course, the client heard her, and he asked, ‘Do you need to go? There’s a baby crying.’ “I said, ‘I know there’s a baby crying, and I don’t need to go because she’s with her grandma. It’s fine.’ But I really felt that after this executive heard the baby crying, there was a shift in how he engaged with me.

After I finished the phone call, I just didn’t feel like I had presented myself as the trusted CEO advisor that I know I am. At the same time, I also wasn’t being the mom that I wanted to be. When my daughter was crying, I wanted to be with her.

“I felt like this really sucked. I was not excelling at either role. And I literally closed my eyes and imagined a light airy space where both my daughter and I could thrive. What if I could get my work done, get a good cup of coffee, engage with others doing amazing things, and have my daughter just down the hall in a separate, soundproofed area with nurturing teachers, where I could nurse her and see her whenever I wanted and be part of her day? I kept thinking about a hip, vibrant co-working space that was not a mommy club.”

Though Diana wasn’t available to meet when I was in the city, I did get to visit NextSpace. I also got to meet with NextKids Director Sarah Shimkunas and experience parents dropping off their babies before heading to their workspaces. I saw that month’s ocean-themed projects, the nap rooms, and the nursing room. I loved the feel of a working community that was both San Francisco-professional and family-friendly.

From Diana’s interview in Lean On and Lead: “About half of the current members work in start-ups, with teams of two to seven people. About thirty-five percent are independent professionals, like lawyers, copywriters, graphic or web designers, and programmers. And the rest of the members are remote workers for either larger or distant companies. In those cases, companies sometimes pay for the desk, and about half the time, the employee is happy to pay for a workspace and the option to stay in the Bay Area. ”

About ¼ of NextSpace members use NextKids. And though NextSpace has co-working spaces throughout California and in Chicago, at the time, only the Potrero Hill location offered childcare.

Municipalities recognize that co-working spaces impact local economic development and support an innovative work culture, and that the childcare component is a way to attract and retain families. Yet finding appropriate and affordable real estate to support this concept isn’t easy. If legislators utilized Family-Centered Design thinking in their planning and zoning decisions, they might see the connection between thriving families and a thriving economy, and provide an infrastructure that supports these kinds of innovative solutions.

With two kids in college, my parenting issues are very different from those of NextSpace members. Yet, not only is the economic value of this Family Centered Design thinking solution obvious to me, as someone with a mostly empty nest, I would personally enjoy working in an environment with parents of young kids. After all, in order to really build strong communities, we need to lean on each other.