When HR professional Terra Wells returned to work eight weeks after giving birth in 2008, baby Kaylee joined her.
It was the business owner’s idea when it appeared that the birth of Wells’ first child would sideline her from the position she’d started just prior to her pregnancy.
“At first I thought it was the most absurd idea,” recalled Wells.
She had toyed with the idea of leaving her baby at home and returning to work after a short maternity leave. As her pregnancy advanced, however, Wells realized how difficult it was going to be to walk out the front door and leave Kaylee behind. So she began conducting research about bringing babies to work.
It turns out that employers who allow parents to bring their children to work are not uncommon in the U.S., according to www.babiesatwork.org, a web site maintained by the Utah-based Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PWI).
More than 1,600 babies have graced work cubicles, offices and meeting rooms of 147 companies, according to PWI, whose web site contains resources, sample contracts and a list compiled since 2005, of organizations that offer this employee benefit.
There’s been a big jump in such programs since 2008, in part because of media attention on this benefit, but mostly because of the recession, according to PWI founder Carla Moquin.
“Allowing parents to bring their babies to work costs nothing,” she said. “It’s a much easier option and less expensive” to implement than maternity leave or employer-provided day care, she said.
Additionally, a company will feel more comfortable if it views it as a pilot program so it doesn’t feel locked into something, she said.
And allowing an employee to bring his or her baby to the workplace does not mean the employer has to accommodate a pet owner who wants to bring Fluffy to work, Moquin said.
“Nobody’s allergic to babies,” she said. “From an employee-needs standpoint, the separation of parent and baby is a lot bigger issue … than somebody being separated from their dog.”
Issues to Consider
Some organizations are hesitant to implement a baby-friendly workplace because of liability concerns.
“Most companies that do this use legal waiver forms so the parent signs a legal document saying they will not hold the company responsible if something happens,” said Moquin, who recommends parents offer to pay some or all of the liability insurance cost that would cover the employer.
Northern Virginia architectural design firm Peck, Peck & Associates has used a one-page policy absolving it from any ramifications should an employee’s child get hurt on their premises.
Babies have been part of the firm’s DNA since Gerry and Dianne Peck opened for business in 1974, when Dianne Peck was five months pregnant. She returned to work one week after daughter Samantha was born and three days after Alexis was born. Their daughters are among the nearly 100 babies that have crossed the company threshold since that time.
The firm’s policy granted it authority to have the parent remove a disruptive baby or child.
“Screaming babies don’t work here in architectural land,” where the workspace is open, said Peck. “We have teams working together and it ruins your train of thought. A lot of times clients pop in. … You don’t want babies screaming or running all over the place.”
About half of its employees have offices with doors; those in cubicles who brought their babies usually had fold-up basinets in place. Parents are permitted to leave their baby in a lunchroom/meeting room within earshot.
In Wells’ case, she converted a large storage unit into a baby-friendly office. Kaylee had a playpen and a swing; Wells had a desk, computer and printer.
“I had a note on the door if I needed privacy,” Wells told SHRM Online, “but other than that it was open door for the entire time.”
Co-workers stopped by to see Kaylee, since Wells rarely took her baby to other parts of the building.
“There were certain people at the time that weren’t supportive and I didn’t want to aggravate the situation,” said Wells, aware that some co-workers viewed Wells’ arrangement as special treatment.
The program has been a good retention tool at Peck, Peck & Associates.
“We’ve had people who were offered jobs [elsewhere] but stayed with us because of this,” Dianne Peck said. And it’s good for productivity, she noted.
“People aren’t as uptight and worried” when they have their babies at work. “They’re so much calmer and you get so much work out of them because they don’t leave on the dot” to retrieve their child from day care.
Kay Sargent said as much in a profile she wrote of the firm in 1992, when she worked for the Pecks 12 years ago. Her experience was not without its occasional problem, though, such as when her baby belched into the phone while Sargent conversed with a client, or drooled over a newly signed letter.
“My personal productivity is somewhat reduced during office hours while I deal with the baby,” she wrote. “But I’m so thankful for having Katie with me that I make it up by taking work home while my husband has his time with the baby.”
Not only mothers take advantage of a baby-at-work program.
“The thing that really surprised me was that the fathers took it up so much more than the mothers did,” even men whose wives did not work outside the home, Peck said.
During the program’s heyday at her firm, three fathers brought a total of eight children to work. One man brought his two toddlers, age two and four, and wore his 6-month-old baby in a carrier as he worked.
Spelling Out Expectations
While not all businesses that welcome babies in the workplace follow a written policy, it’s a good idea to have a formal arrangement, according to PWI.
It’s important for spelling out expectations for everyone—the employer, the parent and co-workers, Moquin said.
“This is such a novel concept for most businesses, and [for] most people in our culture there is a fear among parents that co-workers are going to think they’re getting a privilege they shouldn’t be getting … and the nonparents may be resentful.”
The policy can ask that the parent have a designated volunteer who will watch the baby for a limited time, such as when the parent has to meet with a client. It might even stipulate a baby-free area to accommodate those who prefer not to work near a baby.
“In practice it’s very rarely used, but having it in the policy makes co-workers feel more comfortable with the concept to begin with. Knowing they have this option … just makes it a lot easier for them to be open-minded,” Moquin said.
She suggests employers add a changing table to company bathrooms and make it clear that parents change diapers only in designated spaces, and where and how diapers are to be deposited.
The Distraction Factor
“People love babies,” Peck observed, but a big problem is people “oohing and ahhing all over the place. You’ve got to break that up and get back to work.”
Moquin says the novelty lasts only a few days, but “a good HR manager needs to be willing to say you can’t spend your mornings interacting with the child.”
That distraction factor is one reason Kristen Bossert, a graphic designer in New Jersey, doesn’t think bringing babies or children to work is a good idea.
“It’s always a distraction. It would be ridiculous to say it wasn’t. Everyone wants to see the kid,” said Bossert, who is 45, married and child-free. “I have nothing against children or people who have children. I just think the workplace is the wrong place,” she said.
“If a parent has to work and take care of the child at the same time, one of them is going to have to suffer. That’s just the nature of anything, if you’re trying to do two things at one time.”
Placing the baby or child within earshot but away from the work area is not a good idea, either, according to Bossert, who believes the parent won’t be fully focused on work. She thinks an employer day care site is “a fine idea” for recruiting and retaining talent.
On-site day care, she said, eliminates the likelihood that the parent will be running late or delayed from leaving the baby at day care, and parents have the freedom to work late if needed instead of having last-minute projects parceled out to child-free employees—something she’s experienced and resents, Bossert said.
Moreover, on-site day care reduces the number of child-related breaks the parent would need for chores such as changing diapers, she said, if the baby is in the workplace.
“You have to think of your other employees as well,” cautioned Bossert, who said she becomes distracted and upset if she hears a visiting child start to cry.
She equates having children in the immediate work area with having a puppy at work.
“It’s the same distraction factor,” she said. “It may work for some places, but judging from my personal experience, people generally stop working” when an employee brings a child into the office.
Others just flat-out hate the idea.
An anonymous commenter on SHRM’s HR Talk bulletin board indicated he/she would “rather have bedbugs” than babies in the workplace.
“The babies cry, but generally can be calmed down very quickly,” acknowledged Susan Matthews, principal at Borshoff, a public relations firm in Indianapolis. One employee with a fussy baby, for example, would excuse herself to take her baby for a short walk in the stroller and return with a sleeping baby.
Borshoff has allowed parents to bring infants to work since 2000, as a work/life balance benefit.
“We can’t give all the major benefits of a major corporation, but we have flexibility and we can do programs like that that makes us very attractive; makes us an employer of choice. Even if people don’t plan to use the program specifically, they like what it says about the company,” she said.
The 10-year-old program isn’t feasible for every position, Matthews said, such as the person staffing the front desk in the lobby. The company provides a temporary private office to employees who generally work in open spaces, such as graphic designers. Additionally, employees must have been with the company at least a year to take advantage of the benefit.
“We are very aware that it’s an office first,” she said, adding that the company was not afraid to scrap the program if it didn’t work.
Their program allows either party to end the agreement with three days notice should a baby become disruptive, and requires a signed liability waiver from the parents.
To address any concerns about productivity, the company adjusts the parent’s salary to compensate for time spent with the baby.
“It gives the parent ‘permission’ to take the time that is needed to care for the baby, and other employees understand that the parent is not taking time away from the job. Because we keep time sheets in our agency setting, we all track our time and the 20 percent baby time is just what it takes in most instances,” Matthews said.
An exception was the employee who used the program with her second child.
“As an experienced mother, [she] needed only 10 percent downtime, so we gladly adjusted her salary to 90 percent of full-time,” she told SHRM Online.
PWI recommends limiting the baby program to age 6- or 8-months old, or until the child starts to crawl.
Wells “retired” Kaylee from her company at six months, and limited the baby’s time in the office to 15 of the 32 hours of her 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. schedule.
Employees at Peck, Peck & Associates usually sought day care after their infant reached about eight months.
“Once they’re hitting eight months to a year they start making noise, fussing around. They have to be held a lot,” Peck said.
Borshoff allows babies from six weeks to six months, bidding them adieu at a cookie party.
At Vanguard Communications, a woman-owned public relations firm in Washington, D.C., babies depart when they reach the crawling stage.
“Once they start to crawl then there’re a lot more hazards,” said Tracy Packard Ferrell, vice president of operations, whose specialties include HR. “That’s when it’s hard for you to keep track of them and corral them.”
Ferrell, who has an office with a door, was the first employee who brought her baby in on a daily basis. Her experience served as a kind of pilot program for the company, which has had about 10 babies on the premises in the last 12 years.
A baby-on-board program likely will change with staff demographics.
At its peak at Peck, Peck & Associates when the staff was larger and younger, “every day was bring-your-child-to-work day,” Dianne Peck said.
“It worked for us,” she added, noting that daughter Alexis is an architect whose expected baby likely will be part of the firm in September 2011. “If the family’s happy, the office is happy.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor of HR News.