Imagine a world where parents can bring their children to work, and visit them throughout the day. Kids run throughout the halls, and coworkers know each other’s families. Women nurse in meetings, and no one bats an eye.
Hard to visualize? Not if you work at outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia in Ventura, California.
Patagonia’s childcare program has become a hallmark of the company’s culture. Since starting the program over 35 years ago, Patagonia’s team has an incredible 95% retention of moms at the company.
Family values are truly embedded into Patagonia’s company culture. Women get 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, men get 12 weeks, and every family is given access to an on-site child care center. They also pay for a caretaker to accompany parents on business trips.
The passion for families is clear in the voice of two Patagonia team members—Tessa Byars and Dean Carter.
They’ve witnessed firsthand the profound effect of Patagonia’s generous childcare policy. Carter leads HR at Patagonia, and Byars is a PR and communications manager with two kids of her own.
When it comes to taking care of the children of Patagonia employees, Carter says it’s just common sense:
“People often ask me, what’s the ROI of childcare? And to that I ask, ‘What’s the ROI of your parking lot?’ And they never have an answer. They just say, ‘Well, people need to bring their cars to work.’ And then they realize what they’re saying–– that cars are more important than kids.”
What has your personal experience been like with Patagonia’s childcare program?
Tessa Byars: I’m a parent with a 5 month old and a 2 ½ year old. I make full use of Patagonia’s childcare. It’s amazing. The first thing you see when you come into the parking lot is our play yard. You hear shrieks of joy and lots of children’s voices. That definitely keeps our work in perspective—why we want to find solutions to the environmental crisis. Why we want clean air and water and places for our kids to play. Even for my coworkers who don’t have children themselves, this matters.
There are so many stressors as a new mom. Lack of sleep, figuring out this new person and how they interact with the family. To know that my child is in amazing hands, to continue nursing, to have my personal life integrated into my work life is the most incredible benefit.
I’ve also had caregivers come with me on Patagonia’s dime when I’ve traveled to New York and Salt Lake City to talk with our retailers. It’s incredible to bring my 5 month old along.
Dean Carter: I’ve been the head of HR for 20 years at a variety of companies. Five years ago, if someone asked me what is the number one thing that could impact employee experience and outcomes in HR, I would not have said childcare. And I’m happy after being at Patagonia, and seeing the impact of child care on every single scorecard—turnover, engagement, gender equality for women. Frankly, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t insist on it at all of my other companies before. It truly is the secret sauce of Patagonia.
One of the most interesting elements of our child care program is that it’s really hard not to bring my best self to work. I can’t be a jerk, or take myself too seriously. There are kids right there! It just puts me in a good mood. It also changes the way I look at my coworkers. I see them with their kids, and they’re warmer, more silly. It’s impossible to have someone be a one-dimensional coworker. I know the names of their sons, and I’ve met them, and I see what they eat for lunch.
What has been one of the most difficult parts of running such a highly involved childcare process?
TB: From a parent perspective, there are days when it is a bit disruptive, if a child is having a rough day and wants to visit. At the same time I’m more inspired and driven to get my work done because I want to go see my kid. I’ve been in meetings and got a text that my kid won’t take the bottle. Or my daughter skinned her knee and wants to see me. That can be disruptive, but those days are an anomaly. And people are very understanding. I was late to our phone call because I was with my son. This is such a sweet time and I’m so grateful that I get to be with him.
From a mother’s perspective, I really appreciate that I get to be back at work. I found purpose in my work before I had children, I love my job and was excited to return to it. It would have been much harder to return if I had to leave my kids for 9 or 10 hours a day.
What has been one of your favorite moments with Patagonia’s child care program?
DC: It was probably a year and a half after I started. It was a busy day and I had my head down, walking up some stairs outside. As I’m on my way, I look down and there are these pieces of construction paper all over the stairs. They say: “Warning!” “Watch out!” “Don’t step!” And then another one said: “Butterfly Chrysalis!” There were all these arrows pointing to the cocoon of what would become a monarch butterfly. If it wasn’t for the kids, I definitely would have squished it. Yet here is this sweet moment, where these kids are reminding me to take care of things that are smaller than me. Because they’re taking care of things that are smaller than them.
I actually took a picture of that Chrysalis and keep it with me to remind me of that lesson.
Another favorite memory is from a really serious conversation that we were having with our European office about strategy. It was a really long day. Intense yet also boring. Not fun. Suddenly, one of the wall panels starts to shake, and falls to the ground. We all jump, and then this person in a Spiderman costumes leans in and flexes his arm. And then we realize that this is the son of the general manager of Europe. That moment woke us all up, and reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously. It was this really beautiful moment. It made this guy more human.
I know that some of the people who went through Patagonia’s child care program now work for the company themselves. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
DC: For Halloween, one of our employees and his mom dressed up as a recreation of an old vintage picture of our founder, Yvon Chouinard. He’s probably 30 years old, and his mom worked at Patagonia. He grew up in our childcare program, and now he’s a manager. How cool is that?
Of course, he’s not the only one. We have 25 people working at Patagonia who went through our childcare program.
What is Patagonia’s relationship like with elders?
DC: There are some grandparents who work at Patagonia. We believe in the entire spectrum of community. We revere elders and respect them. Even when someone leaves the company, we also try and offer part-time roles or other ways that they can still engage with the community. Because healthy communities need a full spectrum of ages.
If you could say one thing about childcare to an executive reading this piece, what would it be?
TB: Executives say that what we’re doing is impossible. But we didn’t start where we are now. This program has been around for 35+ years. We always tell people to start small. Give people direct access to their newborn babies for nursing as a starting point and build it from there.
DC: If you want to get an extraordinary benefit—from women returning to work to gender equity to women rising to management levels—then put in a nursery. You can figure out the rest later, but that will make a huge impact.
It’s one big burden you take off a new mom. They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to bring their child for the next year or two—they can focus on integrating back into work and being a great mom.
These interviews have been edited with consent for brevity and clarity.