Recent years have seen a widespread demand for childcare benefits and workplace flexibly surrounding parents in the workforce. As the philosophies of work change, older organizations face serious challenges when trying to get their policies and culture up to date. Start-ups have many different challenges, but they do have the unique opportunity to start off on the right foot. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest has helped one organization put the right foot forward.
Meet Lauren Gill, Head of People at Vivvi, an organization that provides on- and near-site child care solutions.
How did you get into HR?
I work in HR because I love the people side of business and the working world. I started my career in the classroom, which was very relationship-driven. When I was making the transition out of the classroom, I looked at other ways I could bring my skills and interests to the working world.
Recruitment seemed like an opportunity to leverage a lot of transferable skills from my time in the classroom, such as getting people’s attention, communicating a message in a compelling way, building relationships, and working toward a goal. I was originally looking at operations roles, and I had my final interview for this little start-up nonprofit called Venture for America. Its founder and CEO was, incidentally, Andrew Yang, who ran for president recently.
Oh really? I thought it sounded familiar.
A story for a different time. Yeah, so he kind of baited and switched me. I was a finalist for an operations role, and in my last interview he said, “What about recruitment instead?” I said, “Sure.” I loved the mission and the vision and was looking to join that team, so I was open to learning, and that was it from there. I know you’ve written that it’s common for people to kind of fall into HR— that was me, too.
You have just started working at Vivvi. Was there something that brought you to that company in particular?
Yes! This is the first time I married the three passions I’ve had throughout my career, which are education, start-ups, and people. I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to join the team.
I imagine that you’ve experienced the organizational side of people struggling with not just necessarily child care but also care in general. Is that true?
It is, very much so.
Do you mind just giving me your experiences with that? What you’ve seen anecdotally?
What I see here is people trying to be their best selves at work, whether they have kids or not. And we will always have responsibilities outside of work that we juggle. Things like being a parent or having to care for elderly parents which is another situation when you have the responsibility of being a primary caregiver for a family member. No matter what a person’s age, you start to get these complicating factors that aren’t easily managed.
Ultimately, the hours you need to spend being a caregiver starts to encroach upon your ability to work the amount of time you want to.
And then there’s the emotional drain and the need to switch from caregiver mode to colleague mode. I’ve really seen people struggle with that, and it’s often compounded by the guilt they feel from thinking they aren’t the best caregiver they can be or the best colleague they can be. So that really affects everyone in a workplace.
And this is the kind of thing where Vivvi can have an amazing impact. We think about our impact in a lot of different ways. We think about our impact on families and parents and their ability to continue to grow in their careers because they have this high-quality, reliable childcare resource in Vivvi with hours that actually work for them. Of course, we think about the children and their educational experience, and we think about teachers, as well. That’s one of the things that drew me to this role.
Can you talk a little bit about an employer’s need to be flexible when it comes to child care? For me, basically every “vacation” day I’ve taken for the last 3 years has been due to child care needs for my daughter.
I think one of the ways we start to open ourselves up to really support our colleagues as HR professionals is really helping folks understand, especially those who are really mired in the face time culture of things, that productivity and time at your desk may or may not be related. As HR professionals, we should be looking to support employees by providing the resources they need such as flexible PTO and work from home arrangements as well as supplementing things like childcare and eldercare.
If we focus on what our goals as a company are and how we, as HR, help each department and each manager develop strong practices and systems track toward those goals at a company level, a department level, and an individual level, we’ll be putting our efforts in the right place (as opposed to worrying about someone who can never make a 9:00AM meeting because he or she has responsibilities at home). We should focus on the value each person is adding, whether they feel productive and valued, and what we can do to maximize these things.
Is there something from your time in HR you’re never going to forget?
In one role I had, we were a fairly early-stage start-up, and we did not have a parental leave policy in place. We did have flexible paid time off (PTO) but we were at that point where we’d only had secondary caregivers—mostly fathers, new fathers—at the company. Before I came on board, we had not yet formalized a parental leave policy.
Then we had someone come to us who was actually a very new hire and say that she was expecting and asked about our parental leave policy. We went from needing a practical companywide policy in place to making this policy really work with this particular individual in mind. That just made it so much more real, and I was able to advocate in a much more practical way.
It changed my approach pretty fundamentally because I wasn’t thinking about what the market standard was or what the company was able to bear financially—all of the very objective measures. I was really thinking about how this person needs to bond with her baby and everything that comes with that. I think that’s something that is a microcosm of a lot of different moments I’ve experienced and I’m sure we’ve all experienced in this work. You have to make something that works and scales and grows and protects the company on the one hand. But you’re always trying to do right by individuals, as well.
Yeah, I’m sure she appreciated that. Even 10 years ago parental leave was not very popular.
Even now the statistics are staggering about how some companies offer nothing. Now, we have New York paid family leave, which is great. But that’s only one state.
We’re looking at stats like 50% of working mothers don’t come back to work. Whenever I give that stat, I really want to let everyone know that many want to come back but cannot because of a lack of policy or flexibility.
I agree. There are hundreds of reasons why they don’t come back. But this is one of those reasons why employers have to evaluate their parental leave, if they even have it. Three months is considered pretty generous. But, if we had more generous parental leave policies across the board, how might those return-to-work numbers change?
And of course, child care is the logical extension of leave policies. Most people have the reality of needing to find child care, and whether they find a suitable option can be a key factor in determining whether they return to work. So that’s something we’re thinking about internally at Vivvi, as well. What do we do for our teachers? And when we think about the specific demographic of teachers, as well, we realize that what we’re able to offer in terms of both parental leave and supporting child care for our own employees is making a huge difference in our ability to live our mission first and foremost, as well as continue to serve families we fit.
A lot of companies struggle with creating a good company culture, one of the primary reasons being that their external branding is different from their internal branding.
Yes. I’m very aware of that, and it’s a tough balance. To be honest, people don’t tend to make these choices because they have bad intentions. They do the financial model, and they see that it’s going to be incredibly expensive to walk the walk, and then they’re put in a tough spot.
I think planning from the earliest stages and thinking about budgeting and hiring and retention and all of those really important factors with integrity to the mission in mind and not as an option but as a mandate, is important; that’s why I feel so lucky to be on the Vivvi team. In our initial conversation about parental leave here, I proposed what I thought was generous (and maybe unfeasible, again because of the demographic of much of our faculty) set of parameters. The immediate response from our founders, Charlie and Ben, was that we have to do more than that.
And that was a really, really pleasant surprise. They were like, basically, we’ll make it work. It’s one of the reasons I’m really proud to be part of this team—we are truly living the mission. It’s so important to Charlie and Ben and to the whole team that we put our neck out a little as a company to take care of our people.