Being a mom and an engineer at Airtable during the pandemic

Airtable
Airtable
Mar 2 · 6 min read

By Mary Rose Cook

I’m Mary, a lead engineer on the Platform team at Airtable. My wife and I have a two-year-old son and we both have full-time jobs. I have some heart trouble that means I’m particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This means we can’t put our son in childcare. So there are significant portions of the day where I can’t work, or am partly distracted. Despite this, I’m able to do my job because Airtable and my colleagues have been nothing but supportive, understanding, and accommodating.

Support from both the top of the company and my colleagues

This is an excerpt from a Slack message that my colleague Aleks sent right after the San Francisco stay-at-home order was issued last March:

We have now decided to officially close all of our offices […] Please know that it’s ok if you need extra time to focus on home priorities. We recognize that especially for parents with small children, trying to carry on with a normal routine can be extra difficult. There is no minimum number of hours we expect you to work — we’d ask that you contribute what you can during this unprecedented situation. If you need an alternative schedule or need to adjust your deliverables, please work directly with your manager. They can help determine the most important things to work on during the time you have.

And at the top of this post is a screenshot that my colleague Joel took during a Zoom meeting. I had been in the meeting while my son was napping. My son had woken up and I’d gone with my laptop into his room to check on him. I went to fetch something, leaving my laptop behind. I came back to find the scene you see above.

Aleks’ message and Joel’s screenshot exemplify Airtable’s attitude towards employees with children. This attitude runs all the way from the official policies at the top of the company down to the informal approach of my colleagues. It is an attitude of being supportive, understanding, and accommodating.

Airtable’s approach to remote work

Airtable closed its offices in March 2020, encouraged all employees to work from home, and emphasized that the priority was to care for your family. Our offices will remain closed until at least June 2021. Employees are able to work with their manager to agree on work expectations that are reasonable given their family commitments or home situation.

Our cultural norms

It’s one thing for a company to have an official policy. But the company culture can have an even stronger effect on expectations and behavior. For example, some companies might have an unlimited vacation policy, but a culture can imply that time off is for weaklings.

At Airtable, the culture is just as supportive as the official policy. As a parent, I get so much understanding and accommodation from my colleagues. If I have to step away during a meeting to help my son, my teammate Shrey will respond with a smile and a “No problem.” I block out every morning in my calendar as “Childcare” and my colleagues try hard to avoid scheduling meetings during that time. Crucially, I don’t have to keep re-asserting my capabilities with my colleagues. They are eternally respectful of my limits.

And, even though my capacity is a bit reduced at the moment, our culture still recognizes me as someone with a growing career. During the pandemic, I became the lead on Automations. This is a core new feature and was part of the big Platform launch we did in September.

It’s also important to say that work/life balance was supported just as strongly before the pandemic. Some examples. Employees disconnect on nights and weekends to focus on their families and hobbies. Needing to take time off if you or your child were sick was met with concern and understanding. For some amazing parents, it was their norm before the pandemic to work and care for their children. And Airtable provides new parents with 16 weeks’ leave and covers 65% of dependent insurance premiums.

How we maintain our relationships with colleagues, new and old

At Airtable, I have never seen any office politics or oversized egos. And it’s also a very friendly place. For example, before the pandemic, people in different teams used to stop and chat in the kitchen or eat lunch together. In eighteen months with the company, I’ve never witnessed an angry or unkind word spoken. Colleagues are genuinely warm towards each other. And, crucially, this warmth is pervasive. Though some colleagues are certainly good friends, everyone is kind because that’s our culture, not because of a friendship or team membership.

When we started working remotely, we wanted to keep as much of this bonded culture as possible. So there have been frequent and varied activities for building relationships with colleagues: team socials on Zoom, informal coffee mornings, lunch and learns, a virtual party, remote workouts, crafternoons…

More than half of our employees have joined since the pandemic began. We are especially aware of the need for new employees to build relationships with their colleagues. We have a standardized system for ensuring this happens. If you are a new employee, when you join, you get an onboarding buddy who welcomes you on the first day, is a contact point for questions and worries, and checks in regularly to see how you’re doing. You start weekly one-to-one meetings with your manager. And many of your team-mates schedule a one-to-one so you can get to know each other. Teams organize frequent socials like puzzle hunts, trivia, and online games. We’ve even organized large department-wide offsites with offline activities to give maximum flexibility to participants.

How I organize my day so I can be both a mom and an engineer

Because my wife and I take care of our son, we have limited time to get work done. The approach we’ve taken is to cobble together pieces of work time as best we can around the constraints of the day. Here are some things we’ve found to be effective:

Some obligations are immovable. We accept that and work around them. My wife has to go into work in the morning, so that means I mostly look after our son, Jake, in the morning, and she mostly looks after him in the afternoon.

Some natural rhythms of the day have complementary types of work. For example, on Fridays, we have an all-hands meeting that, for the majority of us, is mostly listening. I make sure that Jake and I have lunch during this time so I can parallelize eating and attending the meeting. As another example, Jake naps after lunch. This is a great time for both my wife and me to get work done.

I try to save up the most intense work for the times when my wife is looking after Jake. That way, I can focus on a difficult task mostly without interruption. Despite everything that’s happening, I feel I can still do some of my best work.

Throughout this, Airtable gives me support to help me get work done any way I can. It’s not uncommon to see other parents eating lunch with their children with their laptop camera on during the all-hands meeting. My colleagues are understanding when Jake bursts into a Zoom meeting. And there are no expectations that employees must work a specific set of hours.

Summary

Airtable is an understanding, supportive employer. This support comes from both the company’s official policies, and from colleagues. I feel very lucky to work here.

If you’re looking for a great job with a great company, we’re hiring for many roles!

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Stories and learnings from the engineering team at Airtable

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