Interview: Lessons In
Parent Partnership with Cuckooz Nest

What happens when you make parents a priority?

Cuckooz Nest isn’t your ordinary nursery, and they certainly don’t have ordinary parent partnerships.

Opened in 2018, the setting is part Ofsted-registered childcare provider and part co-working space for parents.

We sat down with co-founder Fabienne O’Neill and childcare manager Heather Stallard to hear their story and find out what other settings can learn from their unique approach to parent partnership.

Who are Cuckooz Nest?

Fabienne and co-founder Charlie’s background wasn’t originally in childcare. Their company, Cuckooz, lets short-term apartments across London. But on a trip to Singapore, an idea started to form.

They visited a coworking childcare space in the country, and having recently found out she was pregnant, it really struck a chord with Charlie. Seven months later, the baby had arrived and it was clear that the childcare options out there just didn’t suit what she was looking for.

“You look into the stats and you find out that one in seven freelancers in London is a working mum,” Fabienne explains. “It really just solidified to us that there was a massive need for a space that combines childcare and work.”

From there, things started moving quickly. They opened the workspace and operated as a part-time creche in April 2018, becoming fully Ofsted-registered in June 2018.

Now, they have barristers, graphic designers, fruit company owners, and even playwrights working in their space. Parents pay on an hourly basis and are not tied down to sessions, giving them the flexibility they truly crave explains Fabienne.

Through a mixture of in-the-moment planning, strong baselines, and a proper overview of availability that allows them to slot parents in and out at will, they manage to combine a great working environment with flexible, high-quality childcare.

“The team are really innovating the way in which you approach childcare,” Fabienne says, “while still maintaining that incredibly high standard and enabling the flexibility parents need.”

And what makes this so good for parents?

It’s fair to say that the parents who use Cuckooz Nest love it.

“The sheer gratitude we get can be quite emotional,” says Fabienne, “because for many of our parents, they can’t continue to be the independent person that they are without us. They wouldn’t have been able to do both.”

But why is this system so good? For Fabienne and Heather, it comes down to four things…

1. Getting back to the workplace

Naturally, a large part of the appeal of a concept like Cuckooz Nest is that parents are able to go back to work on their own terms.

“Some parents want to go back to work, and they truly enjoy what they do,” points out Heather. “They just need to find a solution that lets them have that without having to compromise on their work or their child.”

A large amount of the parents who use Cuckooz Nest are self-employed or own small businesses, and Cuckooz Nest really was the difference between being able to take on work or not.

Rather than trying to squeeze in work in any free minute, or having to take up full daycare that they just don’t need, the flexible, hourly rates and attached worked space mean they’re able to take on work when it’s offered.

One parent, a lawyer, explained that she wouldn’t have been able to take on a case if she hadn’t had Cuckooz Nest. Another, a playwright, was able to take on a new project safe in the knowledge that she’d find the headspace and time she needed to work at her best.

And that leads us onto…

2. Flexibility

“In every other nursery I’ve worked at, the children are very tied down to set hours, and you know exactly when the children are coming in,” says Heather. “Here we are completely flexible. So you have to think really carefully about how you’re going to make it work.”

What this means for parents though, is that they’re allowed to access the childcare they need, whenever they need it. Self-employed parents might need childcare full-time for a few months while a project is on, and then a lot less when a project is finished. Similarly, it makes taking time off for holiday much more easy.

But how do they even begin to juggle such a complicated task?

“We couldn’t do it without some online software,” Heather explains, “because you’d have too many bits of paper. With software, you can do things simultaneously, and it helps us to share even more with parents, of course.”

3. More quality time

But it’s more than just flexibility. There’s also the incredibly short commute to consider…

“Because people know that they can be within their workspace less than 30 seconds after they drop the kids off, there’s not quite the same sense of pressure if they want to hang around and have a conversation at the beginning or end of the session,” Heather says.

What this means is a lot less of those snatched five-minute conversations and a chance to really explain what’s going on with the child developmentally. For some parents, it’s saving them hours every day.

Many parents also find it gives them more quality time with their children at home too. A lot of the parents were not accessing childcare at all before, and having to answer emails on the go, or squeeze in an hour of work during a nap. Not now.

“It actually enhances time at home with their children because all of a sudden the time they’re actually spending with them isn’t loaded with all of these other tasks that they need to focus on,” Fabienne explains.

4. Closer relationships with the team

That’s all well and good, but what about parent partnerships with the practitioners and managers?

Before starting with Cuckooz Nest, Heather had worked at a number of different settings across London, but she felt there was often something missing from those interactions.

“It was always so rushed,” she explains. “It is just too busy at the end of the day. They’re thinking, well, it’s five o’clock, I’ve got to get them home, make dinner, get them into bath, into bed – you don’t want to sit and have a ten-minute conversation about how they’re getting on, that their language isn’t developing. Whereas because we’re in and out of the workspace all the time you don’t have that same sense of time pressure.”

Now, those parent partnerships are by far the best she’s ever had. Practitioners have time and space to explain concerns, give advice, and listen. “We are 100% having closer relationships with parents than I’ve ever experienced before,” Heather says.

What can you learn from this?

It’s all well and good to talk about how this coworking model in an advantaged area of London can be so beneficial to parent partnerships. But most providers can’t offer a service on that scale, and they have many other challenges to face too.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from a setting that has so fully embodied parents as part of their community.

“Of course it depends on your cohort of children,” Heather says, “and we realise that our cohorts come with limited social concerns. But being able to communicate in such a deep, daily way with the parents has had a huge impact on outcomes. We’re seeing some really impressive progress in just six months.”

Here are five ways you can embody the Cuckooz Nest approach and improve your parent partnerships today.

1. Make parents a priority

It’s really easy to feel like parent partnerships are just another thing on your long to-do list. But the tokenistic approach of a newsletter here, a parent event there – it’s not going to really change your relationship with your parents.

When you find ways to make interactions with parents part of your daily routine – having a truly open-door policy, inviting parent feedback, finding the best way to engage with every parent – the more natural it becomes.

“I feel like in this setting we have made parents a real priority,” says Heather. “We truly want parent feedback, and they very much feel involved in what we’re creating at the same time.”

And on the subject of parent feedback…

2. Get them involved in the process

At Cuckooz Nest, they are constantly working with parents to answer their needs. That might be helping to host events, it might be getting feedback on their booking system, or it might be as simple as having a bed downstairs that exhausted parents can nap on.

“It’s so easy to feel like you’re up against the parents and not running as a unit,” Heather explains. “But if you have the parents on-side and involved in the process, then any small complaints or issues can be dealt with. It doesn’t even become an issue. You have a discussion, it’s easy, and it’s over.”

Getting parents involved in the process is about welcoming feedback, and not being afraid to hear when you’re not doing things right. Closing your ears to the concerns of parents isn’t going to help. Even if you know there might be some negatives, working with parents to resolve their concerns is always better than leaving those concerns undealt with.

3. Get them involved in the process

At Cuckooz Nest, they are constantly working with parents to answer their needs. That might be helping to host events, it might be getting feedback on their booking system, or it might be as simple as having a bed downstairs that exhausted parents can nap on.

“It’s so easy to feel like you’re up against the parents and not running as a unit,” Heather explains. “But if you have the parents on-side and involved in the process, then any small complaints or issues can be dealt with. It doesn’t even become an issue. You have a discussion, it’s easy, and it’s over.”

Getting parents involved in the process is about welcoming feedback, and not being afraid to hear when you’re not doing things right. Closing your ears to the concerns of parents isn’t going to help. Even if you know there might be some negatives, working with parents to resolve their concerns is always better than leaving those concerns undealt with.

4. Opportunities for organic interactions

With a parent’s desk and their child’s play space so close, organic communication and interaction tend to happen very naturally at Cuckooz Nest.

But just because that’s not the case at your setting doesn’t mean that you can’t find ways to incorporate more organic interactions. This means looking beyond biannual parent’s evening and tokenistic events that no-one wants to be at.

Far better to have an open-door policy, where parents can speak with you when they have the time and space for discussion. Get parents in to come and actually experience the nursery, and play with the children. Find out how to communicate with different parents in a way that suits them, and open up paths for communication that allow you to get your thoughts across, and for them to share theirs.

One thing that works for the team at Cuckooz Nest is a really informal but professional approach. “It’s not to say that we’re letting parents into our personal lives, we’re still keeping it professional” Heather explains. “But because we have those relationships and they’re genuine, these conversations are never forced.”

5. Building a parent community

One advantage of having so many freelancers under one roof is that it allows them to get to know one another really well. This, Fabienne explains, is a really big benefit to the nursery and to the children.

“It’s great to see parents helping each other out. It’s not just about us but also creating a community that allows parents to support one another too.”

At the end of the day, parents are going through a lot of the same things at the same time, and having a group that they know and trust can be a big relief when they’re dealing with the challenges of parenthood.

6. Solve their problems

At the end of the day, part of what works for Cuckooz Nest is that they’re genuinely solving a problem. Be it the flexibility that parents crave or the ability to get back and focus on their work, when you’re solving someone’s problems, you’ve already won half the battle.

“It’s inspiring when parents feel like they can actually have an impact on something,” Heather says. “That makes them feel empowered rather than just like they’re paying for a service. It means if they do have an issue they come to us wanting to resolve it constructively.”

After all, that’s the real lesson here. When you engage with parents at your own setting and dig deep to find more about their problems, and you can find a way to be part of their solution.

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