How to Create a Family-Friendly Workplace: Q&A with Sabrina Parsons
May 2, 2019
In Eugene, Oregon, technology company Palo Alto Software is challenging the traditional nine-to-five workplace by offering employees flexible hours and inviting them to bring their kids to work with them. We spoke with Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, about how she has helped create a family friendly workplace that benefits both employees and company.
How did you first get started creating a family friendly workplace?
I wish I could say that I’ve been a crusader for working parents from the very beginning, but the reality is that all of this started when I first became a working mom. Ten years ago, when my first son was born, I found that I couldn’t just leave my new baby at home but I still wanted to keep working. I was lucky at the time to be in a situation where I could make the choice to bring my infant to the office with me, do my work, attend meetings and take conference calls — all while still practicing attachment parenting. I took him to work until he was five months old. Once I started doing this, I started getting feedback from many people and realized that many people don’t have this situation.
After talking to people, how many working women were interested in trying this?
I got a lot of feedback from women that if more companies did this, it would make a huge difference in their careers and their lives. At Palo Alto Software, many women who have done this have said that it completely changed their outlook on starting a family while having a career. Recently, the Pepsi Co. CEO said that women just can’t have it all. Well, in this office women can because they can bring their children to work with them. We extend this to all parents. In many cases, we’ve had fathers working here who become the primary caregivers in situations when daycare falls through or the babysitter is sick. They’re also thrilled to have more time with their kids.
What kind of policy have you developed to integrate kids into the workplace?
In our office, you can bring a child to work — not just a baby. We also allow parents to work from home as well. The policy is based on flexibility. It’s more about the choice for parents to say when they want to be in the office.
We have an area where employees can work with their children nearby and we provide private offices for mothers who are nursing. The children have to be well behaved. There are guidelines in our employee handbook that explain how to lessen the impact and distraction in the office. Rather than trying to figure out the perfect work/life balance, we try to take an integrative approach so that employees can be both a parent and a career person.
How has this impacted the culture at Palo Alto Software?
Having a family friendly workplace has given us the ability to recruit more women on our team. We have a software development team that is 30 percent women, while in Silicon Valley the average is around 7 percent. We are able to recruit and retain more women employees and, in general, people are very happy here. We have 55 employees and in the last 12 months, we’ve had 11 babies born. I attribute that to people not having to be concerned how having a family will affect their career.
How has having a family friendly workplace affected productivity?
In terms of how the company is growing, in the last 12 months our primary product revenue has grown 106 percent. We’ve gone from having 43 employees last year to 55 this year and we’re still hiring. We’re growing rapidly and we function very efficiently. People are loyal and they appreciate the flexibility that they have here. When an issue comes up and a developer has to wake up at 2am to attend to it, they aren’t bitter or resentful because they really own their role.
What advice do you have for companies that are interested in getting started with building a family friendly workplace?
The first thing that companies need to do is talk to their employees and find out what the stress points are and how to alleviate them. We don’t offer this flexibility just for parents of children. The flexibility is just as available for people caring for elderly parents, a new puppy and even employees who are passionate about something outside of their usual role. We have an employee who is training for the Olympics and this flexibility gives them the chance to train around their work schedule. It’s important to make sure that you’re offering the perks and benefits that people really want.