Imagine you've just poured your coffee and booted up your computer when your coworker enters your shared cubicle with an infant in tow. Your colleague and Junior aren't just visiting — they're also settling in for a day at the office, one that features a baby-at-work program.
A different solution for the childcare dilemma
Working parents of newborns often face a difficult decision when it comes to childcare. They can put the baby in day care and return to work, but that means being away from the baby for hours at a time. That also means paying for day care services. According to 2018 research from the Maryland Family Network, families in Baltimore County pay an estimated $20,200 to have two children in day care each year. The median family income of those in Baltimore County is $86,700, the research said.
Parents have another option, of course: to stay home until the child is older. But this is not always financially feasible, either.
Some companies are addressing this dilemma by providing a third choice — letting parents bring their babies to work. Such programs may provide employers a boost, too. "Companies benefit from this program, too, because the parent invests in doing the job well to make the arrangement work," Carla Moquin, founder of Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PIWI) said. "They're so grateful to have this time with their child, and a paycheck, and be physically present in career, they work really hard."
On the rise: babies at work
Most companies adopted babies-at-work policies to find a way to retain critical employees, Moquin told HR Dive in an interview. By the end of 2007, Moquin had found 70 companies that had provided the option for at least a year. Since then, she said, PIWI has confirmed more than 200 programs existing at companies, and she estimated at least another hundred have started.
The benefit provides obvious perks for the parent, but it also poses obvious challenges, too. Despite the benefit's increasing popularity, babies-at-work programs are generally met with skepticism, she said. With the correct expectations and implementation, however, most doubtful employers and workers become believers.
"The key provision in our policy is that babies cannot be disruptive to the work environment, which sounds insane because babies cry," she said. In practice, however, the policy results in parents being very responsive to meeting their babies' needs at the first sounds of distress, she noted. "Babies are much happier, calmer and quieter than expected, and then coworkers and managers find themselves bonding with the baby."
Under such a dynamic, employees consider a colleague's new baby a part of their community and become willing to lend a hand when needed.
Working two jobs at once
That village quickly becomes a necessity, according to Mary Lawrence, director of talent and finance at the Air Zoo. When the aerospace and science museum instituted its infants-at-work policy in April 2018, the company was very clear about its expectations. It wasn't providing day care, and participating employees were expected to fulfill work obligations, Lawrence told HR Dive in an interview.
At the same time, support should be in place to help employees trying to balance both jobs. Although support emerged organically with the first infant, in the future, Lawrence said, the program will have a more defined in-office support system of backups for when the parent is needed in a critical meeting or needs to take a short break, Lawrence said.
Operating under its core value of being fearlessly innovative, it made sense for the AirZoo to adopt a program that allowed employees to bring infants, Lawrence said. It built on the nonprofit's commitment to work-life balance and reflected other benefits that enabled work-life balance: "We make a lot of adjustments to people's schedules to leave early or start late," she said. "We try to take into account all of those things, and this was another way to keep people with their babies as long as possible."
Making babies belong
Unless safety concerns interfere, parents can bring babies to most workplaces, Moquin said. While most jobs require at least some preparation for babies, others appear to invite newborns in.
Molly Ging, owner of Michigan-based baby gear store Little Seedling, had always brought her two young children with her to work, but as business expanded and Ging looked to hire employees, she knew the ideal people to work in the store would be parents, she told HR Dive. day care for part-time retail positions was scarce, however. Besides, Ging said, in the age of attachment parenting, it seemed strange to ask parents to leave their kids at home.
Even in a baby gear store — stocked with toys "junior associates" can play with and display cribs that babies can nap in — working parents can feel the challenge of juggling dual roles.
"It is sometimes stressful to have your baby at work," Ging said. Employees want to perform, so when their child is having a difficult time, creative solutions are necessary. "If you're working with a guest and your child is having a meltdown, what do you do? The other employee on staff might try to redirect your child or take over with the guest," Ging said, emphasizing that while supporting the child is essential, ensuing the guests have a positive shopping experience is tantamount.
Structure, flexibility and other keys to babies-at-work success
For babies-at-work programs to be effective, they need to have a blend of structure and flexibility, Moquin said. Problems arise when companies don't have a formal process and haven't nailed down expectations. Without that direction, some employees may take advantage of the opportunity, she said.
Coworkers may spend so much time with the baby that they don't get work done, or worse, "someone changes the baby's diaper on the conference room table, which nobody's going to be happy about," she said. When a program isn't structured well, it's easy to dismiss it as a failure for the wrong reasons, Moquin said.
By setting clear expectations, the program will run more smoothly, Moquin, Lawrence and Ging said, providing the following recommendations:
- Start the program as a three- to four-week pilot to ensure participants don't feel locked in. In many cases, the program is successful and becomes permanent.
- Decide what age a child is eligible. PIWI recommends accepting children up to 6 months, but some companies allow children until they are crawling. Others do not have a cutoff.
- Outline the days the child will be in the office, so everyone is clear on the schedule.
- Identify two backup employees to provide support.
- Understand that the program may not work for every parent or child. Not every parent can focus on work and their child at the same time. And although most babies enjoy the social stimulation of being in an office, not all do.
- The first week may be stressful as parents adjust to the baby's schedule in the office environment, but it gets easier after that.
Pulling double duty as a parent and an employee during the work day isn't easy. "It can be challenging, for sure," Moquin said. "But parents who do this find it's worth it to have this option."