Cool Coworking Space Spotlight

SHIFTing work-life balance: coworking with kids

In the bustling heart of Frederick, Maryland, a lawyer turned entrepreneur is changing the game for local working parents. Meet Megan Donovan, the dynamic founder of SHIFT Work + Play, a family-friendly coworking space that seeks to blend productivity and parenthood — two concepts that seem otherwise at odds with one another.

What led you to solve this dual challenge of working and parenting simultaneously?

Before SHIFT, I had a demanding career as an advocate for nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC, which involved commuting to and from an office with young children at home. Despite having relatively consistent childcare, the strain of juggling work and parenthood was palpable. COVID-19 and the subsequent shift to remote work exacerbated these challenges. 

Megan Donovan SHIFT Work Play Coworking Childcare Coworking Software

I looked around and saw the same struggles, if not more, among my colleagues and peers. A common strategy that parents fall back on is resorting to screen time, which doesn’t feel good and can lead to a lot of guilt.

More parents than ever are working from home, adopting flexible schedules, and starting their own businesses. Not everyone needs, wants, or can afford full-time childcare. But they still need to get work done. The idea for a coworking space that also provided part-time, flexible options for parents with young kids was a solution that immediately clicked.

Coming from law to managing a commercial space seems like a significant pivot. Did you have prior experience in commercial real estate or related fields?

I am detail-oriented as a lawyer and have experience managing projects, but commercial real estate was uncharted territory. However, I don’t tend to shy away from a challenge and it’s been an incredible learning experience.

I spent eight months looking for the perfect spot and a landlord who understood my vision. And I couldn’t be more pleased. SHIFT Work + Play is convenient to downtown, with onsite parking and ground floor access. These aspects are important when you’ve got young kids in tow. And I was able to work with the landlord to renovate an outdated office suite into a beautiful, modern space with thoughtful details and lots of amenities.

Have you explored grants or tax incentives aimed at childcare solutions or supporting new businesses?

I'm always looking out for creative financial solutions and am currently benefiting from a state grant for occupying a commercial space that had been vacant for an extended period prior to our occupancy. While not directly linked to our babysitting services, this funding supports a portion of our lease for a year. Even better, I was thrilled to revitalize a location that had been sitting empty and which was in need of renovation. 

Your space is beautiful and vibrant. When translating your idea into reality, how did you educate yourself on what's needed for a play space?

First, I started by thinking about the parents and the kids. I sought to create a convenient, accessible place where parents would feel comfortable bringing their children. I toured gyms and other facilities with play areas, leaned on my experiences as a parent, and researched examples of other family-friendly coworking spaces.

shift work play coworking with childcare coworks

SHIFT Work + Play is not a daycare center. We offer something a little bit different for parents who do not need full-time care. Our members can book morning or afternoon play sessions. Each play session is three hours long and is staffed by our wonderful playroom manager. She runs the playroom and plans a special craft or activity for each session. The kids also get lots of time for open play. Instead of daycare, it’s an onsite babysitting service designed to help parents get a few hours of focused work done while their children are safe and having fun just nearby.

One of my favorite parts of the day is when the kids stop by my desk before they leave to show me their art and crafts. It reminds me what a fun, unique space we’ve created and inspires me to keep going.

Tell us more about your team.

Amy is our fabulous playroom manager. She has experience serving young children in daycare centers, and is pursuing a degree in education. We're able to benefit from her experience and provide a new learning environment for her, supporting her as she pursues the next step in her education. Down the road, I’d love to hire a community manager and a social media manager. For now, I wear those hats and more. Every day’s an adventure!

Do you primarily serve moms or dads or both?

When people hear about the business, they tend to assume that our members are mostly moms. And we do have a wonderful group of moms who bring their kids in. Several are entrepreneurs in their own right and are designing and growing their own businesses. They come in to power through some work while their kids play. 

But we also have a solid cohort of dads among our earliest adopters. In fact, several dads are in the same situation: they have toddlers and also have new babies at home. They bring their toddlers into the playroom so they can get some work done, and mom and baby get some one-on-one time at home. 

That's not necessarily a scenario I predicted. But if you think about it, every member of those families benefits from our space: dad powers through some work. Toddler has fun in the playroom. Mom and baby get a little bit of 1:1 time together that isn't as common when the second or third child comes along. That's a really nice dynamic that we’re proud to support.

Do you alter messaging and marketing to speak to parents?

I have had to think about how to tweak messaging and make sure that the community at large knows that we are a space that does cater to everyone. We have private offices that are available. We have all the amenities of a traditional coworking space and our design is very thoughtful and mindful, so that we have plenty of quiet workspace. I think people hear about our family-friendly focus and imagine that there are kids running around everywhere and it’s not a space for people without kids. 

Our niche is to support parents, and I think that will always be our target audience. But as more and more folks begin to learn that we’re here and that we offer a modern, convenient coworking space, we’re starting to attract members who come in for reasons other than the playroom. Some of them have older kids who are already in school. Others don’t have children but love the concept and are happy to have a workspace that’s close to downtown, with onsite parking and modern amenities. 

I love that. It diversifies our membership and helps us build a supportive community that’s welcoming to parents and non-parents alike.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle to people understanding why childcare is a community concern?

That's a big question. 

At least part of the answer has to do with how much emphasis our social and employment structures in the U.S. place on the individual. People don’t necessarily live near their families anymore and yet we place so much responsibility on individuals to overcome obstacles and fulfill multiple roles at once. For working parents, we expect them to magically separate working and parenting and to only inhabit one role at a time. It’s not practical or affordable. It’s not realistic. And it’s definitely not sustainable.

One way to challenge those unrealistic expectations is to offer something different and show it can succeed. That’s what I’m trying to do with SHIFT Work + Play.

I have several members whose employers pay for their monthly coworking membership, and the members pay for the play sessions they book. The parent gets some work done. The child is safe and has fun, never far from the parent. And the employer benefits by supporting an employee in ways that increase productivity and satisfaction. Everyone wins in that situation.

How can you facilitate your members working with their employers to help cover the cost?

We haven’t been open for long, but even so, I’ve started going out into the business community in Frederick and approaching employers, suggesting this as another way to support their parenting employees. 

One point I emphasize is that it’s not just about providing parents with some dedicated work time. It's also about creating an environment where they and their families can thrive. Remaining in the same place has so many benefits. When a parent can pop down the hall to check on their child or take a quick break, they are relieved of the burden of wondering how things are going at daycare. When a child knows a parent is nearby, the play experience is much less fraught with separation anxiety and the challenges of traditional daycare settings.

Our member parents say their productivity and mental health has improved. They love being able to focus on work and appreciate that time. That’s a big win for employers too. After all, who is more productive than a parent with a few hours of time to get things done? 

Do you also have to balance educating your community about coworking as a concept?

We are lucky to have a couple of great coworking spaces in Frederick. They have their own target audiences and clientele, so SHIFT Work + Play fills a new niche. And so it has been nice to engage the various business communities here and meet a lot of people who already have an understanding of what coworking is. That allows me to focus on our particular niche and amenities. Many people get it right away — a light bulb goes off and they immediately want to know more, either for themselves or others in their community. I’ve also lost count of the number of times someone with grown children says, “Where were you when my kids were young?”

What do you wish you knew before you opened?

How much of a full-time, specialized job social media is! Like so many small businesses, I didn’t budget for a social media manager. I knew I’d have to learn some new skills to effectively use social media to promote my business and keep my followers engaged. But I’ve always been ambitious and it seemed like something I could figure out well enough to save some money as a start-up. And I’ve learned a lot. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is that it is worth it to pay a pro! That’s on my goal list for 2024.

In the meantime, I’m doing what so many parents do when pulled in too many directions at once: I’m making it work, one day at a time. It’s a privilege to serve the Frederick community and I look forward to growing SHIFT Work + Play over the next year and beyond.

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