London’s Flexible Working Hubs

Once the chaos of a newborn has subsided and thoughts eventually creep towards returning to work, you may well be shocked to learn how difficult this is in London, says Beena Nadeem

For starters, the UK is second only to Switzerland for the world’s costliest childcare, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than in our capital where costs are a third more than the rest of the country. And with two or three workplace crèches in the city – bringing your baby into work is hardly an option for many.

It would be natural to feel the most coveted careers lean towards freelancing – those lucky women who have time to spend on both their careers and their families. In reality, it is these parents who face the greatest restrictions from a largely inflexible childcare system, forcing many of them to shelve their careers altogether. And despite London boasting a rich mix of creative freelancers and shift workers, the Childcare Trust shows us that only three local authorities out of 33 have enough suitable childcare for these families. When you take into account that just 18% of London parents have flexible or ad hoc care (compared with 32% for the rest of the country) it’s little wonder that just 60% of London’s women with children are in work, compared with a national average of 70%.

Thankfully, change is grabbing the capital. A network of workspaces with adjoining crèches, which can be used on a drop-in basis, are blossoming, borne through the frustrations of women fed up with restrictions placed on them to work set hours and juggle a baby at the same time.

In 2013, Ann Nkune launched Bloomsbury Beginnings, an ad hoc crèche and adjoining workspace, along with a networking and support group for entrepreneurial women. The move came about by seeing the impact having a baby can have on even the strongest of us.

“My little girl was just three when a very good friend – a talented, young mother – took her own life. At that time I was, like so many women with children, torn between returning to my previous career or working for myself,” says Ann. “The tragic event forced me to face up to some stark truths about parenthood and the pressures we’re under – often without even having acknowledging them.”

The former Youth Offending officer and social entrepreneur goes on to say, “It soon became clear that many of the parents I was surrounded by were frustrated entrepreneurs too, nurturing creative business ideas, but not sure whether or how to pursue them. They often lacked the time, focus, confidence and business skills to take the next step.”

By nurturing these entrepreneurs through its ‘parentcubator’, Bloomsbury Beginnings has launched some 30 new businesses.

In 2014, Ann launched a working space with adjoining flexible childcare a community centre to provide “an alternative to the cripplingly expensive childcare on offer at regular nurseries, which so often prevents women from taking the necessary risks to embark on new business ventures”. Since its launch it has helped more than 150 parents to work flexibly.

One of Bloomsbury’s parents who came through its parentcubator is Dahlia Dajani. Previously a brand manager in Dubai, Dajani found her first daughter had long-term health problems. By the time she was ready to embark back into the world of work, all doors were closed.

“There’s so many highly qualified mums and dads out there who want to spend their time with their children ­ – and when they have decided to get back to work, it’s been a real struggle; it’s such a waste of knowledge, expertise and talent that can be used,” she says.

Since January this year, Dahlia has been running Entreprenursery, a pop-up crèche and workspace in West Hampstead. Although currently self-funding, she hopes to get the investment to roll out a service like Bloomsbury’s, to help develop other budding entrepreneurs.

As more and more parents try to find solutions to flexible working, it seems need is not always the most pressing factor. With high rents and lack of suitable locations, finding venues proves far from easy.

With more arts, culture, pop-up cinemas and galleries than you could shake a rattle at, Walthamstow is massively lacking in these crèche workspaces. Former TV industry professional and single parent Keryn Potts knows only too well the struggle to set up somewhere for other creative mums. She has been looking for a suitable venue for the past two years – and points out that a nearby “café under the arches with hot desks is buggy central,” yet talks with the council to find suitable locations for an adjoined crèche is providing fruitless. “We don’t have many options here – it’s the prime reason people are not doing this in London – the rents are too high.” Karen is now looking to do this as a franchise with a couple who run a nursery here, “otherwise it’s just not viable – there’s such a lack of money in it”.

Entrepreneur and mum Leo Wood runs PlayPen, where once a week mums can use the laptop-friendly café and adjoining pre-existing crèche belonging to housing association Poplar Harcar. Based at St Paul’s Way Community Centre in Mile End, it gives parents a few uninterrupted hours of working time. Leo also admits it’s a difficult business to navigate. “I don’t make any money from this,” she says. “Start-up costs are high and return is low.”

Leo, who runs successful co-working spaces in London, says she would love to offer networking opportunities for mums though as the pop-up runs on Thursday mornings only, she says: “This isn’t a coffee morning: people don’t really have time to chat. They’re time poor and want to get their heads down for a few hours of uninterrupted work”.

East London has another option, too, this time in Dalston, where arts organisation V22 is piloting its first workspace crèche in its studio with access to Dalston’s Eastern Curve Garden. The space aims to support artists, freelancers and entrepreneurs to continue their work whilst still being hands-on parents. If successful, it will roll crèches throughout all of its studio locations across London.

From a former bicycle shop in North London’s Crouch End operates the city’s only wholly flexible nursery. My Crèche offers drop-in childcare from 30 minutes to whole days for up to 16 children. Parents don’t stay on site, but can come back to check in or breastfeed whenever they like. Launched by the wonderfully named entrepreneur and former president of business development at American Express, Saasha Celestial-One. “There was a huge need – I saw my local gym’s crèche rammed with mums who weren’t exercising but taking those two hours to work, reenergise and engage”.

The entrepreneur, who has recently launched anti-food waste brand Olio, said getting the balance is hard. “You have to find the right market: people have to be able to afford childcare yet not affluent enough to get a nanny”. The nursery offers care from 7.45am until 6pm, with various options in-between, and often runs at 80% full in order to ensure there’s flexibility built in for mums who need it. “You don’t get rich working in childcare,” she adds.

Casting the childcare eye to South London, some interesting options emerge. South East London’s Bay Tree Nursery is a rare find by offering overnight care. Although night nurseries are common in Sweden, to date this is unique for the country. Taking in the changing needs of shift workers, it also offers flexible drop offs and pick-ups from 5.30am until midnight.

“It’s an extra service we provide to help those parents who have to sometimes work nights and then switch to days a few times a month,” says Maria. “Nurseries don’t do this as it’s not big business for them – but it’s just something extra I do to help those parents out.”

Of course crèches and nurseries don’t work for everyone. And it’s good to know for older children, the options for flexible childcare don’t disintegrate when they start school. Student Nannies is an innovative network, which links registered students who can provide childcare and even homework help, with parents who need flexible care.

Set up by newspaper features editor Tracey Blake in response to her own situation, she explains: “I needed something from 3.30pm until 7.30pm when I got home and the existing offerings were too rigid and I didn’t want to waste money on booking a whole day of childcare.”

Tracey explains how by using two or three local nannies, a fully flexible childcare can be achieved. “They really get to know the children. Student nannies can help with homework or bake cakes. One of ours made a giant advent calendar with the kids. On some days – when the children are tired, they can relax and watch TV in their own house. In turn, the nannies get paid more than they would doing a bad bar job or a zero hours contract”.

Other useful contacts:
Outspace offers workspace and an adjoining creche from £7.50 per hour, and free networking and business support for London parents
Third Door has flexible childcare and workspace in Putney. Drop your child off for ad hoc sessions from £10 per hour.
Super Startups offers networking and business advice for new parents.

Words by Beena Nadeem