Amanda Munday is torn about the impending closure of The Workaround, her coworking-slash-childcare centre in Toronto’s east end. Instead of having to rush between home, work and daycare, the centre’s 158 member families can work and play in the same building.
The Workaround doesn’t provide the full-day programming seen at community childcare centres favoured by the federal government’s national childcare strategy - its $30-billion plan to cut childcare fees to $10 a day, per child by 2026. It isn’t a fully licensed childcare space. Nor is it a workplace-based childcare option in the traditional sense: it isn’t attached to a particular company or facility. Its parents are remote workers or entrepreneurs, mostly looking for a few hours of childcare at a time where they can work in close proximity to their child and home and avoid time-consuming travel. The Workaround doesn’t qualify for federal funding, but Mx. Munday says some parents depend on childcare arrangements that have flexible scheduling and don’t fit the childcare strategy’s mold.
Some hybrid workers only need childcare for a few hours on days when they are working from home. And as work days becomes longer owing to technology allowing us to always be on, less structured and less confined to the physical office, workplace-based childcare either in a large office or geared toward remote workers similar to The Workaround, where you can clock in and have your kids looked after, may be a preferred way for some busy parents to juggle all their needs.
The federal government’s childcare strategy wasn’t meant for these sorts of childcare arrangements, and Mx. Munday says the $10-a-day subsidies are putting The Workaround out of business. Since the policy was announced in 2021, they say business has fallen by about 40 per cent. It’ll close by the end of the summer. But, as a single parent themself, Mx. Munday isn’t against a national childcare program.
“I’m obviously devastated,” they tell The Globe and Mail shortly after announcing The Workaround’s closure. “But this is a national childcare policy that affects millions of businesses across the country. It’s not surprising that there are some business casualties.”
The need for affordable childcare options for working parents isn’t new – feminist advocates have been calling for it in Canada since at least the 1970s. While the workplaces of today are, by and large, far more flexible than they were 50 years ago, the acceptance of remote work during the pandemic hasn’t completely changed the game for working mothers. According to a survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in 2022, nearly half of working mothers felt burnt out trying to balance work and childcare responsibilities.
Mx. Munday and other childcare providers feel Canada’s national childcare policy should try to meet these mothers where they are at – wherever they work best – instead of just relying on traditional childcare options. “There’s such a big conversation around returning to work and what’s going to become of offices,” Mx. Munday says.
Look around the world, and it isn’t hard to find workplaces that provide childcare to employees while they’re on the clock, even if that happens to be outside of conventional 9-5 working hours. At Infosys, an Indian software engineering firm, workers can drop off children aged 2.5 to 5 at an on-site facility in Bangalore, according to a case study by the International Labour Organization. While it is expensive, and mostly paid for through worker fees, employees told the ILO the peace of mind is worth it, and Infosys credits the program for its high employee retention rate. Such a program would generally need to be run as a licensed childcare facility in Canada, and if it was, could be included under the federal childcare strategy.
But workplace-based childcare isn’t popular in Canada. Except for some public sector workplaces like the federal government and universities, the vast majority of Canadian employers don’t even consider childcare benefits as a potential perk for employees.
This is still true, even after the pandemic underscored – again – just how essential dependable childcare is to working parents. And Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, an advocacy group pushing for a publicly funded childcare system, says there is no reason why a universal system of early learning and childcare can’t have centres located in or adjacent to workplaces.
Martha Friendly, executive director of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit, says some workplaces are more suitable than others. A convenience store, for example, simply doesn’t have the critical mass of nearby children to be worthwhile for families in a nearby community. A monster truck yard, she says, may simply be too dangerous. But a university or healthcare centre might be, owing to the presence of other amenities like parks or libraries at these sites.
While workplace childcare sites might not be as centrally located, or as efficient, as a community-based childcare centre, they could provide additional flexibility to parents who frequently find themselves rushing to pick up their kids before their daycare closes. Many licensed all-day facilities operate from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and that simply may not be realistic for some parents, especially those who work later shifts or have a long commute.
However, Ms. Friendly points out, childcare that runs at non-standard hours isn’t as useful to most parents as a base of regular, licensed childcare. In a past study of non-standard hour childcare by the Child Care Resource and Research Unit, a Winnipeg childcare provider said most people simply don’t use childcare outside of typical hours because they either have partners who don’t work the same hours or they have other arrangements.
“We concluded, in doing this analysis, that it’s not only a matter of adjusting childcare,” Ms. Friendly says. “Work hours should also be adjusted.”
While she acknowledges that may not be possible for some professions, such as medicine, she points out that non-standard childcare isn’t a magic bullet. Getting a baseline of licensed, all-day childcare would go a long way to alleviating the pressures many working parents still feel.
Ultimately, Ms. Friendly says, Canada’s childcare system can’t simply rely on a market of private childcare providers and childcare consumers. It needs to be much more deliberate. “What it needs is a publicly organized strategy that is planned and has priorities,” Ms. Friendly says. And, she adds, workplace-based childcare should have a place in that plan.
The lack of interest in workplace-based childcare in Canada, as well as the ramp-up of subsidized childcare, is forcing some work-and-childcare companies to consider alternatives. Bok Play Café, a coworking and party venue company founded six years ago in Mexico City, opened its first Canadian location a year ago. But Rocio Rios, Bok’s founder, says their next Canadian venue won’t even have a co-working space – just a café and a party space.
“You have to follow business,” Rios says.
However, Mx. Munday says The Workaround’s model is still quite valuable for some workers today, even if it is a challenge to keep a workplace-based childcare centre open. For freelancers or entrepreneurs who can work from anywhere, but need care a couple of days a week, centres like The Workaround can give them exactly what they need.
Mx. Munday also thinks integrating work and childcare could revitalize office districts. “Once you have parents and kids in a building, think about how easy it would be to justify bringing in a dentist, bringing in different types of play-based providers, chiropractors, early learning speech therapists,” they say. “To me, bringing childcare into office spaces unlocks so much vibrancy.”