Photo by Studio 21
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In the heart of Clerkenwell, a mere five-minute walk from Farringdon Station, there lies the capital’s latest hybrid offering. Labelled as London’s first co-working space with creche facilities for children under two, Cuckooz Nest, which launched in April, is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Charlie Rosier and Fabienne O’Neill, and came to life after Rosier, a working mum, struggled to find flexible and affordable childcare for her first child.
An arguably natural progression of the duo’s serviced apartments business named Cuckooz (a playful take on cuckoo birds that make others birds’ nests their home), the new workspace-cum-creche aims to bridge the childcare gap for 0-2-year-olds, and opens a timely conversation on work-life balance and family-focused workplaces.
“We’ve designed it to make it feel like an extension of the home,” says Rosier, who has collaborated with design and build company Whitepaper, as well as Leo Wood, founder of cafe workspace and creche PlayPen in east London’s Mile End, to design a “calming and soothing environment”. A working mum too, Wood, who is about to open her very own Kinder Design Studio with a focus on workspaces and child-centred spaces, believes there is an “infinite market” for childcare in the workplace, but by way of warning, she clarifies: “The challenge is not the market, it’s the business model.”
The flexible model of Cuckooz Nest is a point of pride, and rightfully so: it allows parents to choose packages that vary from pay-as-you-go to a full membership. The interior, set in a former electrical factory, mirrors this versatility: spread across two floors, the downstairs is dedicated to full-time members – with Kontor fixed desks, ergonomic chairs courtesy of Techo, plus breakout areas and private phone booths – while the ground floor is where the magic happens.
Although they are rubbing shoulders, the hotdesking area and the creche work in their own terms thanks to two separate entrances – one opens into an airy workspace complete with Arper chairs and flanked by an open kitchen with marble counters and reflective brass surrounds, the other leads to a storage-filled foyer that links to a deep blue, star-studded sleeping room, as well as the play area.
“We’ve given the best part of the space to the creche,” says O’Neill, who stresses that Cuckooz Nest is “not a workspace with an afterthought creche”. And sure enough, a superb skylight allows natural light into the space, where details like cloud-shaped acoustic panels by The Woolly Shepherd and Muro modular activity boards highlight the trio’s design-led approach and reassert this “home away from home” feeling.
“Because of the time it took to go through planning, we had a lot of time to think about the design,” says Rosier. And with an area as animated as Clerkenwell, this home-infused workspace is certainly a good arrival point for commuting parents who might not live in the immediate neighbourhood (as long as they steer clear of rush hour, that is).
“Our unique selling point is our location,” confirms Rosier. With the hive of activity surrounding Farringdon (Crossrail is set to open in December and The Ray building development in the former Guardian House next door is well underway), Cuckooz Nest might just be gauging the right demographic. “We have a bias towards creative media types,” she says, but members also include venture capital, PR and “a real mix” of other sectors.
“It’s taken a long time to get to this point,” she admits – initially, the duo had their eyes set on a property in King’s Cross – “but the biggest challenge now is going to be working within the framework of Ofsted.” Indeed, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills understands the complications associated with such hybrid spaces and comes with a plethora of regulations including a 1:3 child to adult ratio. So, headed up by Petra Hall, former head of operations at workspace specialist The Trampery, Cuckooz Nest has partnered with agency Manny & Me and employee benefits company My Family Care, in hopes that they will “innovate and support parents in their return to work”.
The supportive element is palpable, and by way of comparison, O’Neill assures me that Cuckooz Nest’s rates are 20% cheaper than standard nurseries, and 30% cheaper than hiring a nanny. As I write this, childcare vouchers are coming to their end in the UK, and according to a Trades Union Congress analysis published in October 2017, “the cost of childcare for young children has risen more than four times faster than wages since 2008”, a figure that spirals up to 7.4 in London. So, what does this mean for the office market?
Are on-site childcare amenities the best way to help people combine work and family? Oliver Black, managing director at My Family Care (whose client list includes IBM, Google and Ikea) believes that there is a “real appetite [in the UK] to make sure that people want to combine work and family,” but he is quick to argue that on-site facilities are not a one-size-fits-all solution. “The UK is the most regulated childcare industry in the world,” he says, before laying out struggles companies may face with floor space, light, children-to-staff ratio, quality of care, qualifications required and all associated costs.
As it probably should, though, Black’s argument stretches further than a string of Ofsted complications and continues on questioning the impact of on-site facilities on work-life balance “in its broadest sense”. “As an organisation, it’s about inclusivity and touching as many people as you can.” He states that a striking “40 to 50% of the UK population has direct caring responsibility [childcare and eldercare combined],” and puts that into perspective by highlighting that “on-site nurseries are dealing with only 3-4%”.
Still, Black believes Cuckooz Nest will do “infinitely more” because of the sheer variety of memberships available. And as part of their partnership, My Family Care is giving Cuckooz Nest members free access to its services, webinars, blogs and the company’s “magic” tool – Backup Care, a service launched in 2009 that allows parents to organise backup childcare or eldercare with half an hour notice.
Black admits to being biased towards the Backup Care programme, but he does underline the paradoxical nature of agile working and on-site facilities – two notions he describes as contradictory. “The idea of tying people to a site because of their childcare arrangements doesn’t make sense,” he says, further linking the success of on-site facilities to a lack of childcare provision in the area. “Each local authority has to produce a childcare sufficiency report [to identify the supply and demand of childcare services]. That’s why workplace nurseries were great when they started: because there wasn’t any childcare provision. You have to think more broadly now, around agile working, especially in the City.”
Ultimately, it’s about objectives, as Deborah Phillips, president at Boston-based WFD Consulting, a company that offers global work-life and dependent care solutions, tells me: “If the goal of an organisation is to have staff in one campus working together, then thinking about the nature of services offered is important.” For example, she mentions industry giants like Abbott and Johnson & Johnson – huge corporate locations with enough critical mass to justify on-site childcare facilities – but also industrial parks with a lot of businesses.
“Multinational organisations are driving this focus on work-life integration and helping support their employees,” says Phillips, who managed the direction for the then-groundbreaking American Business Collaboration formed in 1992, where companies “collaborated and provided funding at all levels, in order to create new childcare facilities or improve the quality of childcare where employees lived and worked”.
Still, none of this disqualifies the smaller players in other parts of London – Third Door in Putney and Bloomsbury Beginnings near King’s Cross to name a few – and elsewhere, with the likes of Birmingham-based Impact Hub (see RegiOn, p109) and FarmWorkPlay in Kent. On the international level, children aren’t strangers to the co-working scene either: the list includes Coworkcreche in Paris and Singapore’s first of its kind Trehaus, which co-founder & COO Elizabeth Wu tells me was created “because we wanted to change the working landscape of society as a whole.”
This sentiment that social change is becoming a driving force in workplace design is echoed by Phillips: “Worldwide, it’s not a level playing field, but there are definitely efforts,” she says, unsurprisingly placing Scandinavian countries at the top of the pyramid for work-life balance plus maternity and paternity leave.
As far as agile working goes, she points out: “Thirty-plus years ago, when talking about women in workforce and flexible working, you were talking about part-time work, as opposed to now, where it’s no longer about part-time, but about juggling the demands of this high-impact work-life dance.”
“It’s not just about women with children, it’s about people with lives” – and this just might be the crux of it. Once costs, regulations, location and alternative childcare provision have been factored in, perhaps this is also about inclusion. Perhaps it is about working parent gathering under the same roof with their children to work, but also, as per the co-working trend, to interact with one another.
And this is something that Cuckooz Nest seems to understand full well. “We want everyone to come to the space and feel natural and supported,” says Rozier. “We want to build a community of like-minded people.” In fact, the team is already looking at two other sites, but even more interestingly, they are already “in discussion with Deloitte” – a bold yet intriguing move into the more corporate, bigger-sized venues, where Cuckooz Nest hopes to become an anchor tenant.
This may be an ambitious move for a business that has just launched, but together Rosier and O’Neill seem determined, and they have certainly surrounded themselves well. As O’Neill explains: “We’ve all got a common goal of trying to innovate and improve and support parents in their return to work.”