Infants in the workplace

Why babies are bouncing in some offices

A mother hard at work with baby in tow — the image that comes to mind goes back a few generations when infants perched on stooping backs, their alert but quiet faces peering out from behind shawl slings as their moms toiled away in the fields or at the markets.

But a baby in the office, cooing in the corner while mom is trying to rush out a month-end report in the 20 minutes she’s got left before the department heads’ meeting? “It would never work!”

That was the reaction from several female executive members of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) when the idea of letting parents bring infants to work was first pitched, said Brent Roper, director of HR at NAIC, a Kansas City, Mo.-based not-for-profit organization employing about 500 workers.

“‘We’ve gone too far. There’ll be babies screaming all the time and no one will get their work done,’” he recalled them as saying. He brought those concerns to CEO Cathy Weatherford, whose reply was: “‘It’ll be all right. Let’s get our feet wet.’”

That was 10 years ago and, since then, more than 70 babies have been brought to work in a program he said has transformed the office culture. People there think nothing of walking by an office with a jolly jumper hanging from a door frame. Or a colleague sitting at the computer wearing a sleeping infant in a sling. Or someone bouncing a baby on his knee while giving input in a meeting.

In the United States, where job protection for maternity leave lets moms take only three months off unpaid, most women can only afford to be off for 12 weeks or so. A small but growing number of companies are letting parents bring their infants to work, said Carla Moquin, president of the Framingham, Mass.-based Parenting in the Workplace Institute. She knows of about 100 companies that offer this program.

“The benefits for a company include increased teamwork, increased morale and increased retention. A lot of companies start offering this as a one-time thing for a particular employee, but they like it so much that it becomes an ongoing program for everyone,” said Moquin.

In Canada, year-long maternity leave makes it unlikely that such a program will catch on. Still, not everyone can afford to stay away from work for a whole year, especially people running their own business. Madeleine Shaw and her business partner Suzanne Siemens, co-owners of the Vancouver small business Lunapads International, brought their three children to work when they were four weeks to 18 months old. “It has been a great way for the principals of the business to manage motherhood,” said Shaw.

NAIC first introduced the program as part of a retention initiative, at a time when turnover was at 30 per cent. The not-for-profit organization couldn’t compete on salary alone, said Roper, so it brought in a smorgasbord of options — flex time, telecommuting and, yes, parenting at work. Turnover is now nine per cent. And instead of taking 12 weeks off or not coming back altogether, new parents are now back at work when their babies are seven or eight weeks old.

“Their productivity isn’t 100 per cent, but we’re happy with 70 or 85,” he said.

Courtney Mayorga came back to her job as senior customer support analyst after 10 weeks. The first two weeks were a struggle. Her baby, Spencer, just didn’t want to be held by anyone other than his mom, and he cried a lot at first.

But Spencer eventually got used to the office environment. He sometimes sat on Mayorga’s lap, sometimes amused himself in a foam seat on the desk and sometimes lay in the playpen surrounded by toys. To nurse, Mayorga took him to a room set aside for that purpose. Her husband, who also worked for NAIC, also took the baby for a couple of hours a day.

And if Spencer ever started to fuss while Mayorga was on the phone, someone nearby would inevitably step in to pick him up.

Kelly McCumber, a sales account executive who has been cubicle neighbour to three babies, said people somehow became attuned to what the infants needed. Over time, even a sensitive boy like Spencer got used to the different people who held him day after day.

And when adults react negatively to the idea of being around babies, it’s often because they remember the piercing shriek in the grocery checkout line or at the restaurant and expect a baby to be crying like that all the time, said Moquin.

But generally, babies at a very young age are quiet, said Moquin. They sleep a lot, for one thing, and when awake, they’re pretty content to be held or to be worn in a sling.

“And the socialization aspect of the workplace is huge for keeping babies content. Babies love being around a lot of people and interacting with people. And they’ll bond with a number of different people so if these other people come to them instead of mom, they’ll be happy,” said Moquin.

And everyone interviewed said the way babies change the work environment is tremendous. People come by to look at them on their breaks, they get to feel like part of someone’s family for a while, and if they’ve had a tough customer on the phone they’ll stop to hold the baby as a way to decompress.

“Kelly and I have become better friends through the program. I became closer to so many of my co-workers. And it really breaks up your day. It gives you something to look forward to when you’ve had not such a great meeting or not such a great call,” said Mayorga. “I wish more companies would do this. I’ve received so many benefits through the program.”

Babies at work
How the program works

At the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, there’s a certain set of protocols in place to help make this program work for everyone. Employees have to apply through HR. Only babies less than six months old are allowed to come to work, because older babies tend to need more stimulation and attention, especially once they’re mobile.

If an office is available, the parent participating in the program will be moved to the office for as long as the baby’s coming to work. They have to designate two or more colleagues who’ll act as backup caregivers and step in when there’s a task that can’t be put off. There’s also a complaint process in place for employees to raise concerns about the program.

Added to the above, Carla Moquin of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute would suggest employers communicate clearly to everyone how the program is going to work. Managers might also make it clear that both the parents and the co-workers have to be able to get their jobs done. “It means that parents might have to stay late but on the other hand they don’t have to rush home to get to daycare. And co-workers aren’t spending all day playing with the baby.”

Plus, employers offering the program should state from the outset that the program might not work for everyone.

“It depends on the baby’s disposition and physical situation. If the baby cries a lot, that’s not going to work,” said Moquin. “If the parenting style is such that the baby is being scheduled and allowed to cry for a long time, that’s not going to work. The parent won’t get their work done, other people won’t get their work done, and resentment is going to build.”

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