Interview: BubDesk founder Meg Burrage talks about flexible work arrangements to support new parents
When Meg Burrage was ready to return to work, she noticed a gap in the market – spaces where parents could remain close to their child, but be free to focus on completing the demands of their job. Whilst many employers offer the option to work from home, this doesn’t address the need of who will care for the child while the adult completes the tasks to hand – enter the BubDesk solution. The Sector Assistant Editor Freya Lucas spoke with Meg about her business, and the opportunities it offers for parents and providers.
Interviewee: Meg Burrage, Creator and Director, BubDesk
Organisation: Childcare Holdings Pty Ltd
Date: 3 October 2018
Topic: BubDesk, flexible working arrangements, ECEC providers
Freya: Hi Meg, thanks for joining me today. Let’s begin at the beginning! Tell me the BubDesk story, how did you get your start?
Meg: I registered the company in late 2015, and we launched in February 2016. Initially we had a completely different model to what we have right now. The initial vision was a central co-working space with a creche, so that parents, freelancers, creatives and others could come in, share a buzzing and vibrant co-working space, and have nannies on hand.
We ran the business that way for a year, leasing commercial office space in the CBD, but the model was no longer financially viable for a number of reasons. The business structure meant that parents weren’t free to leave the building while their children were in care or make use of any childcare benefits.
I still had the core purpose in mind, to support parents in getting back to work, but in recognising that the existing model wasn’t working we closed the co-working space at the end of year one and I went about speaking with childcare operators, arriving at our current partnership model in March 2017. From then it’s been about growing the network of centres we work with and providing services in the areas where our working parents need them.
Freya: Tell me a little more about the BubDesk model, how does it work?
Meg: We partner with childcare centres who offer registered care and ask for an administrative space within the centre with one or more desks for working parents to use. The parents enrol their child into the relevant room at the centre, as with normal childcare. The parent then works from the BubDesk workspace, within the centre, for as little or as long as is required – typically once or twice a week for 12 weeks, while they transition their child into care. It’s great for breastfeeding mums for example, because their babies are close by and they can feed and then return them to their educator and focus on their work. Because the children are signed in to childcare for the day, parents are free to leave the centre for meetings, so it’s the best of both worlds.
The centres have flexibility around this also – they may choose to only offer their BubDesk workspace one or two days a week and use the desk or desks on other days for programming or meetings. Centres only need to provide four things to partner with BubDesk – a space to work, access to a wifi connection, access to a printer, and most important for busy parents – access to coffee!
Freya: Sounds like a great opportunity for parents. What are some of the advantages to non-ECEC businesses – what do some of your corporate partners like about BubDesk?
Meg: I think we have a lot of companies nowadays who are talking about flexible working arrangements and how they can best support their employees returning to work from parental leave – I see our business as an extension of that flexibility.
We talk to a lot of big companies who experience a high turnover of staff in the return-to-work space following parental leave. Parents who are either not coming back or coming back but not staying. I like to call it a work/life “blend” and BubDesk can really provide support in that transition time. A lot of companies struggle to find a blend that will work not only for the parents, but also for them. They may, for example, offer an opportunity to work from home, but typically companies won’t allow an employee to work from home and care for their child.
We position BubDesk to those businesses as a better solution to working from home – the parent works close to the child, but someone else has the responsibility of caring for them, meaning the parents are more productive. We often find it’s the parents who struggle with the transition to care more than the children, and being in the same building can be a gentle way to support the change.
“We often find it’s the parents who struggle with the transition to care more than the children, and being in the same building can be a gentle way to support the change.”
Freya: Where do you find the highest take-up of BubDesks in the community?
Meg: We have a wide range of BubDesks in a variety of areas, but find the biggest take up is in the more affluent suburbs. To access BubDesk parents are paying the usual fees for childcare with an additional $33 payable for a day of BubDesk office use. The typical BubDesk user is in a middle to senior management position or they have their own relatively established business and need to have the flexibility that BubDesk affords.
We do get a lot of requests from rural and remote communities where parents would like the flexibility BubDesk offers, particularly during times where one partner is fly-in fly-out (FIFO) and the other needs to focus on their business. The difficulty here, from a BubDesk perspective, is that childcare services in these regions are typically oversubscribed, which makes implementing our model a challenge.
Freya: You mentioned the challenges of working in rural and remote communities above – what are some of the other challenges for BubDesk at the moment?
Meg: Every region in Australia is different. Here in Perth, occupancy rates typically sit around 70 per cent, which leaves services with the flexibility to support the BubDesk model. In Brisbane, where we’ve just launched, it’s been more challenging to find services to partner with because occupancy rates are higher. We’ve had the most success with services who are newly opened, and who have space to accommodate new enrolments.
Freya: I noticed that you had a Goodstart centre come on board with you recently – are there any other major providers, such as Affinity, G8, Guardian etc, who are involved with BubDesk?
Meg: I’m certainly interested in working with centres of any type or size who can support the BubDesk concept. At this stage we’ve found that some of the policies and procedures of national and multi-national companies can make it more of a challenge to implement a concept like BubDesk over the more flexible situation with not-for-profit or smaller services, but we’re certainly open to working with larger providers to implement the BubDesk concept in their centres.
Freya: On that Meg, what do you see as some of the advantages for services who come on board with BubDesk, and how can services get involved if they are interested in becoming a BubDesk centre?
Meg: The impact on operations is very minimal. There’s nothing required from the centres which isn’t happening already and there’s no special provisions that need to be made, but the exposure that services receive from offering BubDesk is huge! It really sets centres apart and it’s a great way for them to increase their profile in the community. Having BubDesk in the centre often brings a bit of media or community news.
Centres we work with often tell us that their enrolments have increased because of BubDesk – not only through the enrolment of families who are using the BubDesk, but also through families who hear about the centre when BubDesk is talked about in the media and think “Oh! That’s quite cool! I wonder what else they offer?” before coming in to take a tour and then enrolling.
We sell BubDesk as a package of 12 weeks and most of our parents use BubDesk for this amount of time only, but the centre keeps the enrolment of the child, potentially right up until school, with very little investment in setting up a BubDesk workspace. It’s a big win for services.
“We sell BubDesk as a package of 12 weeks and most of our parents use BubDesk for this amount of time only, but the centre keeps the enrolment of the child, potentially right up until school, with very little investment in setting up a BubDesk workspace. It’s a big win for services.”
Freya: I can see that BubDesk would be of real value to breastfeeding mothers who wanted to be in the same space as their child to support the breastfeeding relationship. Is BubDesk something which is only available to mothers returning to work?
Meg: While most of our client base is mothers who are returning to the workforce we’re adamant that BubDesk is just as much for dads as it is for mums. Where we have employers, who are trying to encourage dads to embrace family life and flexible working arrangements, this is a great hybrid space for companies to explore. We’d love to have more trail blazing dads join us.
Freya: So Meg, what’s next for BubDesk? I read that your five year plan in 2016 was to have 30 centres around Australia before looking to the overseas market. Are you still on track with those plans?
Meg: I’d say we aren’t far off. We have 18 centres currently, with two more shortly to be listed, and I believe we are on track for 30 by the end of the year. I can certainly see the model succeeding in other western countries. The Asian market may be trickier, as the cost for nannies is much more affordable than in Australia.
Freya: Thanks Meg. Before we close off, and as an innovative service provider in the ECEC world, what do you see as being innovative concepts, or sector disruptors on the horizon?
Meg: Well, if I could do anything in the ECEC space, it would be making the child care subsidy (CCS) an easier space to navigate, for service providers and for families. From speaking with my clients, I find this is one of the most stressful aspects about negotiating their return-to-work. Someone needs to innovate that and make it easier for families.
Realistically, I think it will be about childcare services becoming ‘one stop shops’. I see quite a bit of it, working with a variety of centres. Cooked dinners to take home is a start, but if there was a way to make childcare centres more of a support hub for parents, where they could have a variety of things taken care of, like car servicing and dry cleaning and other things on the “to do” list, I think that would make everyone’s lives easier.
Freya: Wonderful, thanks for speaking with me today Meg.
Meg: A pleasure.