Lactation rooms are no longer a nice-to-have perk for working mothers–for many companies, they’re required by law.
But just because lactation rooms became an architectural requirement for companies with more than 50 employees with the passage of the Affordable Care Act doesn’t mean they’re well designed. Many working women are still forced to pump in closets, shower stalls, and multipurpose wellness rooms, which can send the message that being a professional is not compatible with being a mother. These spaces have become ad hoc lactation rooms because offices weren’t designed to accommodate proper spaces for pumping moms.
A new lactation room concept called Sona aims to solve this problem. Created for our series Provocation, Sona is a mobile pod designed to make pumping a private, pleasant experience for working moms. The stand-alone pod fits a lounge chair, sink, and four small refrigerators. Unlike most lactation rooms, which are physical rooms, Sona is a mobile unit that can be placed anywhere in the office–or in other kinds of public spaces, like airports or parks–whenever a woman needs a place to pump.
A pumping room and proud of it
Sona is designed to be used as a lactation pod and nothing else–a design decision that’s surprisingly radical. This is no multipurpose wellness room that women are expected to use to pump, which can lead to awkward situations when a mother needs to pump and the room is currently occupied. It also has a different connotation than even a designated lactation room, because people tend to use those spaces for other things–ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick famously used the company’s lactation room to meditate.”It’s hard to keep people out of an empty space when we’re all scrambling for privacy,” says Tina Manis, a senior vice president at CannonDesign who led the Sona concept team. “So in a way I think we imagine that [Sona] would almost guarantee a dedicated space.”
That’s because Manis doesn’t believe people will use the Sona pods for anything other than pumping–unlike even dedicated lactation rooms, which have been used for naps, phone calls, and even sex. We’re used to co-opting rooms for other purposes, especially in open offices where there’s little space. But a pod like Sona doesn’t have the same connotation because it’s more like a piece of furniture than a room.
Giving pumping women a space that they can call their own doesn’t just eliminate the logistical problems of using multipurpose rooms. It also shows women that their needs are being prioritized. “This could reduce anxiety, the discomfort of being in the workplace,” Manis says. “The object itself is being brought for her, as dedicated for her. No one will violate that. It demands to be respected.”
Good design is good business
Sona’s mobile design is practical for companies as well. Manis imagines that companies could rent the pods by the month for however many lactating moms there are in the office (each pod can accommodate up to four women). When there are more moms, the company can rent more pods, and when they don’t need them anymore, the third-party company that manages them can just pick them up–the design is small enough to fit inside a freight elevator. This flexibility could be attractive to companies in cities like New York where real estate comes at a premium. “We see it as something that’s independent infrastructure that you get when you need it,” Manis says. “It’s sort of like, ‘oh, the caterer’s here.’ It’s mom catering.”
Of course, using a mobile pod means that a company isn’t building a lactation room into the infrastructure of its building–a signal that working mother’s needs haven’t been integrated at a core level. Nor would a pod rental accommodate any pumping moms who visit the office; if there were no mothers currently lactating, an office wouldn’t be equipped for pumping visitors.
CannonDesign interior designer Carolyn Zoerb says that Sona is probably best as a solution for companies that can’t entirely rebuild their offices to create dedicated lactation rooms. “If it were a ground-up, brand-new office, then, yeah, the best-case scenario is that there’s dedicated space,” Zoerb says. “But when there’s not, and you have a retrofit situation, an existing space that needs to provide this service, this brings the barrier of entry down. It allows companies to feasibly provide a really nice space for women to feel supported in the workplace through this difficult time in their life.”
Making motherhood visible
The mobile aspect of Sona also has a more subversive element to it. Some of the team’s renderings show the pods sitting in a company’s lobby or cafeteria, right in the open, in the hopes that the design could making pumping a more normal part of the office environment. “I think there’s always a stigma against women who’ve had children in the workplace,” Manis says. “Expressing milk shouldn’t be a shameful thing.”
That doesn’t mean women don’t need their privacy while pumping. While not in use, the pods are open on the top and the side, acting almost like a piece of furniture. But once a woman enters the pod, the entire thing seals around her, giving her total isolation and acoustic privacy. The team also added an occupancy light on the outside as a reminder to colleagues not to disturb. That serves a dual purpose: “It’s announcing, look what’s going on in here,” Manis says.
An adjustable interior
Inside, the pod is designed to adjust to whatever the woman wants. Some women might want to keep working as they pump–and there’s a pull-out table for a laptop. Others might want to escape the stress of the office for a few minutes. To enable a spa-like experience, CannonDesign’s designers imagine full projection mapping on the interiors of Sona, which can transport the user to a forest or another peaceful scene. Manis believes that this will help mothers feel more relaxed, which can help them express milk.
An app enables women to adjust the projection mapping, the lighting and temperature inside the pod, and access their personal refrigerator, where they can leave their milk when they’re done. The pod’s interiors were informed by the designers’ expertise working in healthcare and hospitality. Manis says that there will be a UV cabinet to sterilize the pump after use, and ideally the entire interior could be sterilized using UV. All the surfaces were designed to be soft and comfortable, with no metal, but are still easy to wipe down and clean with bleach. The fridge can be accessed from the exterior of the pod so that women can grab their milk on the way home without disturbing the pod’s occupant.
Not just a concept
Sona is on its way to being a reality. Manis and her team have submitted the concept to CannonDesign’s internal incubator program, and it already has the support of the company’s CEO. And for Manis, who herself was a pumping mom 17 years ago, Sona represents a sea change for office design. She remembers trying to pump for her son in a pre-WeWork kind of coworking space, where her only options were to huddle in the corner or to go to the bathroom. “Equity in the workplace is so much more visible, even though it’s not totally equitable. We know that, but we talk about it,” she says. “It’s a dialog. It’s a business plan. It’s a strategy.”