By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007
An instant message alerts AOL employee Steve Rice that his daughter's newest potty training feat was a success.
Rice thanks the child-care center via instant message for the amusing, but helpful, update.
Potty training isn't exactly an emergency, and Rice isn't much of an anxious parent.
But if he were, he could e-mail AOL's parent coach for toddler advice. He could watch a live video feed on his computer of his daughter napping in the child-care center. Or he could walk over to the center and eat lunch with her.
AOL is growing up. The average age of employees is 35. While that might seem young, for a company once filled with young, single techies, it's quite a turning point in office culture.
When Rice, now the technical director of AOL.com, arrived at AOL 12 years ago, it was as if the company were going through its wild teenage years, he said.
Relationships blossomed as AOL grew into a more established Internet and software company. Rice married a fellow employee. In his circle of friends, he knew 10 other AOL couples.
Even co-founder Steve Case met his wife at the company.
Today, about half of the 4,000 employees at AOL's Dulles campus are parents, many of whom are long-time staff members, said Mary Barnes, vice president of portal operations and planning and head of AOL's parents group.
"I feel like there's been a birth explosion here," said Barnes, who has three daughters.
The demographics also changed as the company's dial-up business shrank and AOL reinvented itself as a network of free, ad-supported Web sites. Call centers were shut, and many young workers were let go, said Jodi Fuller, human resources director of health and benefits.
The workforce that remains is less wild teenager and more young adult -- a little wiser, a little more mature.
"You get a new perspective when you have kids and sort of mellow," said Rice, who has three children. "You learn when not to panic."
As other large corporations were adding gyms to combat heart disease, AOL was adding lactation rooms for nursing mothers, Fuller said.
In November, AOL will open a second child-care center to house 120 to 150 children of employees. The 19,600-square-foot building will have several nurseries for infants and playrooms for toddlers and 2-year olds.
But combined with the existing child-care center, which opened in 2001 and cares for about 160 children, the two buildings still won't be enough to accommodate the 400 kids already on the wait list.
And there are no exceptions to the wait list.
"People tell us, 'I'm the senior VP of whatever.' We're like, 'Sorry,' " said Mary Ann Caccamo, executive director of the center. "We tell people they need a backup plan."
With new responsibilities outside the office walls, some employees are tweaking their schedules.
In AOL's start-up days, some employees worked late into the night to finish projects.
Now the parents group is pushing for more-flexible schedules. Some employees are leaving work early to pick up their kids from school. Then, after their kids fall asleep, they're logging on from their computers at home.
Ellen Patterson's day is longer now that she has two little girls. To get to her desk by 9 a.m., she has to be out the door of her home in the District with both daughters ready for AOL child care by 7:30.
She'll check in on her girls through the Web camera installed in the center, but not too often.
"I try to stay focused while I'm at work," said Patterson, director of business operations and distribution of personal media.
Family-friendly initiatives, which started in 2000, are central to AOL benefits, a key incentive for recruiting and retaining employees.
The company has created special parking for expectant mothers at the front of all buildings.
Through the Well Baby Program, a nurse is available to coach new parents via e-mail and phone calls. AOL also provides parenting workshops, on-site prenatal education and lactation counselors.
Parents pay for enrollment at the child-care center, but AOL subsidizes the program for about $500,000 a year, Fuller said. "In terms of productivity and giving parents a piece of mind, it's one of the best investments we make," she said.
There are also more family-focused events.
Summer family movies sponsored by the company have replaced summer water park outings, where young employees once mingled in their swimsuits.
Take-your-child-to-work day has become an orchestrated event, with goodie bags and organized activities.
One Saturday morning last winter, AOL's auditorium was the host of a cabin fever party. Cooped-up kids released their energy on a huge moon bounce while parents socialized.
"It's not just beer bashes anymore," said Barnes, who came to AOL nine years ago. "Though there still are beer bashes."
Perhaps feeling nostalgic, AOL's new executive team -- led by chief executive Randy Falco and Ron Grant, the chief operating officer -- has begun to reinstate some of AOL's more-youthful traditions such as launch parties for new Web sites or products.
"There's definitely an air of celebrating and bringing back the old days, that culture and feeling," Patterson said.