When attorney Becky McElduff went back to work after a 3-month maternity leave, she had a few extra things to bring for her first day back at the office. A pack-and-play. A stroller. A diaper bag. And, the user of all that gear: her 12-week old daughter, Audrey. Becky’s employer, Kansas-city based National Association of Insurance Commissioners, is one of a growing number of companies that allow new moms and dads to bring their babies to work.
To clarify, we’re not talking about an employer having a daycare facility or provider in its offices. These are programs in which you simply bring your infant with you and plop him on your lap or in a swing by your desk while you work. Or at least try to. As hard as it is to believe, companies who’ve tried this swear by its effectiveness.
“I’ve seen a huge cultural shift in how people are perceiving this topic,” said Carla Moquin, founder of babiesatwork.org, a website that has a directory of 171 baby-inclusive organizations. Exact numbers on how many total companies do this are hard to come by; many employers don’t promote it. Moquin said that her template policy for starting your own babies-at-work program has been downloaded at least 3,000 times. She has personally helped more than 25 companies establish programs, including a British taxi-cab company that is the subject of an upcoming BBC documentary Babies in the Office.
Necessity is the Mother of All Invention
Desperation led Michael and Uli Belenky, husband and wife co-founders of baby clothing company Zutano, to pilot their own program about 8 years ago. Given the company’s lean staff and remote location in Cabot, Vermont (making it hard to find replacement talent), they couldn’t afford to lose their production manager Denise when she announced she was having a baby. “We said ‘bring your son to work, let’s try it,’” said Mr. Belenky. After all, during the company’s early years he’d worked with his own baby in a sling on his back.
Since the Denise experiment, more than 20 babies have graduated from Zutano’s program, which allows new parents to bring baby for the first 12 months. You’re provided with a maternity office that has room for a crib—and the flexibility, privacy, and understanding that you’ll make it work somehow. One year there were five babies among their staff of 20. “You’d think it would be a noisy disaster, but it’s a myth that babies are always crying,” Mr. Belenky said.
Managing a fussy baby at work
Still, new parents need to plan for the inevitable. Vicki Kuskowski, a graphic designer at Zutano, just wrapped up her stint bringing her baby Otis to work. “If he was especially fussy, sometimes I would just sit him on my lap and show him pictures of babies on the computer for a design I was working on,” she said. Only once did she/Otis have a major meltdown (“We left early that day”). It also helped that if he spit up or had a poop blowout, there was a convenient stash of Zutano’s baby clothing samples nearby. While he napped, she worked with laser-like focus.
As a mom who works from home, I’m still a bit skeptical of how much actual work one could do in this situation. My baby Jake is generally a quiet, happy baby—except in those moments when I actually schedule him to be. I remember when he was nine-weeks-old, I frantically drove around the Target parking lot to ensure he’d be asleep during an important work call. Naturally, he woke up as soon as we got home. I hired a babysitter the next day.
McElduff dealt with such unpredictability by scheduling more desk work than in-person meetings during her baby-at-work period. Her workplace also required she have two willing, back-up coworker “caregivers” that could jump in if a work situation demanded her presence.
The business case for babies at work
“As a business—dollars- and cents-wise— it hasn’t cost us anything to have this program,” said Mr. Belenky. “It’s one benefit we’ve been able to hold onto regardless of the economy.” The programs serve as great recruitment and retention tools. Liability risks can be offset by insurance and skipping the benefit for employees that, say, work on forklifts. Though a new mom with a baby on her hip isn’t exactly working at full throttle, she’s at least present—and likely to stick around. Said Belenky, “The productivity we see—even if it’s not 100 percent—is more than if [the parent] had to take a year off or juggle managing a daycare provider from afar.”