Work & Mother Aims to Make Lactation Suites an Office Staple
Abbey Donnell's company is expanding out of Texas to the East Coast, and working at the landlord level
Forget an in-office espresso machine, a living wall or a Peloton-stocked gym. One of the most luxurious amenities an office can have shouldn’t be treated as a luxury at all.
As women return to the workforce, in-office lactation suites are more in demand now than ever before — and no, that doesn’t mean cramped nursing pods, poorly lit rooms or converted closets.
Abbey Donnell, CEO and founder of third-party lactation suite company Work & Mother, is changing the game for working moms. Federal law, specifically the PUMP Act, requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide said employees with the time and place to nurse. Work & Mother helps businesses meet this requirement and helps working moms meet this need. The company provides lactation suites on a building-to-building basis, so any office within the building can access the amenity.
Gone are the days of bringing your pump to work; the suites are a one-stop shop for working mothers, and each comes with everything a woman could need to breastfeed on the job. Right now, Work & Mother suites have cropped up mostly in Texas — where Donnell lives — but the 5-year-old, Houston-based company is branching out. It most recently partnered with owner Jamestown to build a lactation suite at Boston’s 18 Tremont Street and Arlington, Va.’s Ballston Exchange property.
As Work & Mother expands its footprint on the East Coast, Commercial Observer caught up with Donnell to talk about work, motherhood and where the two intersect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Given what you do, as well as the name of your company, I have to ask: Are you a mother?
I have two kids, but I was not a mother when I started the company. In fact, I was pregnant with my first when I launched the pilot. Then, I got to test everything in real time.
What sparked your motivation to focus on lactation suites?
I was hearing all of these horror stories from friends about trying to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. These are people at companies that should’ve had the spaces and resources for it. And I looked around my own office, and it was an open floor plan, glass walls, and a single unisex bathroom. Even though my company was super supportive — has a very supportive culture — there’s just no way I would be able to do this. And, so, I basically set out to create a solution that I knew needed to exist.
What differentiates your lactation suites from others?
Before us, really, aside from privacy pods, the only option was for an employer to try to carve out space within their office. So you’d see a lot of multipurpose wellness rooms, which is a step in the right direction, but that still came with a lack of privacy and a lot of logistical struggles: everything from booking oversight to “How do moms clean their [pump] parts and store their milk?”
So, a lot of the instances of harassment actually would come from a mom walking out of their multipurpose wellness room and carrying her pump equipment and milk to the company kitchen, where she’d have to rinse it and store it in the breakroom. Work & Mother was really the first approach that was about how to better support all of the employees and in a way that’s efficient for an entire building.
So women can get up to pump in the middle of the workday without advertising what they’re doing?
Exactly. No one has to know. You just get up from your desk. You could be going to the bathroom. You could be getting a cup of coffee. A lot of times moms will grab lunch and come pump while they eat. There’s a layer of privacy, not that it’s something that needs to be hidden.
That seems like such a luxury, but it really shouldn’t be!
I know. When you think about all the facilities in office buildings or residences, you’ve got dog parks for the dogs; you’ve got golf simulators in tenant lounges. But this vital health task is just being left to closets or wherever there might be a vacant area in an office. When you think of it that way, it’s completely unacceptable.
On your website you compare lactation suites to a building gym. What do you mean by that?
Instead of treadmills, you’ve got private rooms with hospital-grade pumps. We want to make it very clear that this is part of the common area, if you will, of a building that’s accessible by any tenant. From a buildout, from an equipment standpoint, from a consideration standpoint, it’s to the level of consideration of a building gym, rather than an afterthought.
What does the physical building need, if anything, to accommodate one of these suites? Can any building do it?
It’s very flexible in the space needs, depending on the building itself. The biggest consideration is plumbing, though there are some workarounds for that. It doesn’t have to be prominent retail space, either. In fact, a lot of times the more hidden, unleasable or hard-to-use spaces end up being quite nice for this. We have spaces currently open as small as 350 square feet; and then we have some that are as big as 1,400 square feet with 10 private rooms serving 3.2 million square feet of real estate. I’d say on average most are probably around 650 square feet.
How do you think lactation suites can benefit businesses at large?
If you’re looking at the current workforce, health, well-being and family balance is one of the most important things on peoples’ lists. So, there’s the recruiting and retention standpoint. Right now, over 75 percent of women want to return to work after childbirth, but you have a 43 percent turnover rate in that first year back, and it’s because it is so hard to come back if there’s nothing in place to support them.
There’s also the productivity piece. If you’re constantly stressing about where you’re going to pump or how that’s going to go, there’s a logistical burden. And, then, the health component: The parents who breastfeed miss work half as often to care for sick children than those that formula feed, just because of the antibodies. So, you actually have this domino effect of benefits to the employers that translates to lower health care premiums as well; you see lower rates of many childhood illnesses. Once you keep these women in the workforce and you’ve got a higher percentage of women in management-level positions, the businesses actually see a higher ROI.
During the pandemic, a lot of women left the workforce. For many, child care factored into that decision. What potential do you see for Work & Mother to not only get women back into the office but also keep them there?
At the end of the day, child care is still a problem. But if you’re able to minimize the number of days that your child is sick and can’t go to day care, for example, or you need to be home caring for them, then we’re at least helping solve that piece of the child care. Of moms who work outside the home full time, only 10 percent are still breastfeeding at six months. Of the moms who have access to our suite, 90 percent are still breastfeeding at six months. And, so, it really sets the moms up for success at both.
What kind of pushback have you, or the landlords who have used your services, faced? I’m just thinking that a lot of corporate offices tend to be a man’s game and abide by tradition. Has there been any back and forth?
I think the biggest pushback we get is actually misconception around the law and the code. Because there’s never been any other option, there’s a bit of a misconception that every individual office suite has to have a mothers room. That’s because the law basically states that if you have a certain number of employees, you have to provide some sort of mothers room accomodation.
When landlords realize they don’t have to put in a mothers room in every single spec suite that they’re building — they can do an outsource shared-space approach — it’s not only a big benefit from a leasing and tenant experience, but it actually saves them capex dollars.
How has the perception of having lactation suites in an office changed compared to when you first launched in 2018?
The PUMP Act passed in December. That closed a lot of loopholes in the law so that now virtually all employees are covered by these laws for a longer period of time than before.
Also, the whole flex-work and work-from-home models mean it makes even less sense for every employer in a building to try and adequately provide the spaces and resources. This amenity provided on a landlord level benefits the employer and not only helps bring people back into offices but also allows the tenants to use their [tenant incentive] dollars for their core business. A lot in the landscape has changed, but it’s all really making this an even stronger value add to landlords and to the employers and to the moms.
Since you’ve become a mother, how have the lactation suites grown with your own experiences?
If you think about traditional mothers rooms, they were really modeled after a nursery. That’s great for when you’re at home with a baby, but if you’re at work trying to pump and multitask, it’s really not the ideal setup. So, there were a lot of tweaks to the design of the spaces, the setup, the equipment and the tools that we use.
There was also a pretty big difference in my own breastfeeding success. With my second kid, I was traveling a bit more or out in the field doing business development. It was such a struggle for me; I was trying to find bathrooms, pumping in the car. I was able to see how much the space impacted my success.
Anna Staropoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.