by Mary Jessica Hammes
March 14, 2011
When Ambrosha Guereña, an agent relations manager at HometownQuotes in Franklin, Tennessee, proposed bringing her baby to work with her after her maternity leave, there were clear opponents. Babies make noise, after all, and some of her co-workers were certain that a child would be a noisy distraction for a business that connects consumers with insurance agents.
But Elaine Fearn, the company’s human resources manager, was willing to give it a go. Fearn knew what it was like returning to work after having a baby—years ago, after her first child was born, she quit her job and worked at a day care center, so she could earn some kind of income while spending time with her baby. Plus, HometownQuotes is a small business with just 25 employees, and Guereña was an important member of the team.
Surprisingly, every single person—even those who first opposed the idea—quickly found that it was the perfect solution.
“It was a win-win for both sides,” says Fearn. “Once we started, we knew it was the right decision.”
The office environment changed with the presence of Guereña’s son, River. “You can be having the worst day, and coming in and hearing the baby laugh or coo or reach out for you to pick him up—it was like nothing else mattered,” says Fearn. “It changed the mood of the office. It wasn’t as stressful.”
A local TV news story highlighted Guereña’s experience in 2008. One of Guereña’s co-workers, Michele Tangney, told the interviewer, “It’s amazing how one little baby can really pull a company together as a family, and that’s really what he has done.”
River, who will be 3 years old in May, was the inaugural baby at HometownQuotes’ Babies At Work program. Since then, another baby has also participated. The business is one of at least 148 companies in the United States (U.S.) with formal programs allowing parents to bring their babies to work with them, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PIWI).
Carla Moquin founded PIWI in 2007 to share information and help businesses implement babies-at-work programs. So far, Moquin has assisted 23 organizations in doing so. While there may be other companies with similar programs, the 148 companies listed on the PIWI website are ones that Moquin has confirmed and received permission to list.
“I have reason to believe there are hundreds more companies that allow babies at work that we just haven’t confirmed or become aware of yet,” says Moquin. According to Moquin, information on setting up such a program has been downloaded from her website over 2,500 times since the beginning of 2009. “We’ve only had a little over 6,200 unique visitors so approximately one in every three people who comes to the website downloads the policy, I would think in anticipation of proposing it or implementing it in their organization.”
In lieu of babies-at-work programs, some businesses offer onsite child care—or, in the case of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, nearsite child care.
A Working Mother Best Company, the pediatric health care system has around 7,600 employees scattered over three hospitals, a corporate office, an autism center, and various neighborhood centers, so employees have access to a variety of company child care centers within walking distance on campus.
Women make up 82 percent of Children’s employees; 62 percent are working moms. Most of them have clinical jobs, working with sick children, so a babies-at-work program is not possible. But with onsite child care, mothers are able to visit their children to breastfeed or quickly deliver expressed breast milk that is pumped in one of the many workplace lactation rooms. Employees can also receive a yearly $1,000 credit to apply to non-Children’s child care centers. If a family’s alternative child care arrangement is unavailable due to holidays, illness, or the like, employees can take advantage of subsidized back-up child care ($6/hour for in-home care or $2/hour at a child care center). Children’s also pays the subscription fee for a local child care referral service, and arranges “speed sitting” meetings, not unlike speed dating, in which parents can meet a number of local child care providers at once.
“Child care is a very important issue for us,” says Donna Nazary, director of Children’s Total Rewards program. “We want people to want to work at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta more than anywhere else. We want them to come back to work after they have their child.”
Other businesses are catching on. FORTUNE’S annual Top 100 Best Companies To Work For notes that more than a quarter of the businesses on the list offer onsite child care.
Still, Moquin says she believes that parents bringing children to work with them could be more popular than onsite child care, especially for smaller companies who cannot afford to build, staff, and insure an onsite child care facility.
“I believe that both options have benefits, but babies at work is a lot more palatable, as long as you set it up well, because of the minimal costs for a business,” says Moquin. “It saves everyone money…there’s so much potential for so little investment.”
Why babies-at-work programs work
Parents who can bond with their babies at work while saving money on child care are highly motivated to make the arrangement succeed, says Moquin, so they “do whatever it takes” to get the job done. They learn new levels of efficiency—like all parents do when adjusting to life with a baby—and, since they don’t have to dash off to day care pickup or to relieve their nannies or babysitters, they can stay at work to finish tasks.
The arrangement allows for easier breastfeeding, and since breastfeeding protects babies from illness, that means less sick days for the baby and less time off for the parents.
Moquin has found that co-workers enjoy de-stressing by taking breaks to visit their babies. Babies like the social environment, non-parents become more understanding of parental demands, and management might end up adopting more family-friendly measures in general.
There’s also a practical reason for parents bringing children to work. “We have no meaningful maternity leave in the U.S.; FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] is a joke,” says Jake Aryeh Marcus, a lawyer, a legal expert on gender, breastfeeding and the law, politics editor for Mothering Magazine, and a mother herself.
A recent report says the U.S., which has no nationwide policy of paid maternity leave, trails “decades” behind at least 178 other countries that have laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave (and 50 nations that guarantee paid paternity leave).
Still, the idea of bringing children into the workplace may seem like a terrible idea to some. Non-parents especially might resist the notion.
“I completely [understand] that,” says Marcus. “[Many employers and employees] may not want to be around children, and I get that…at the same time, we all need to work and support ourselves.” She notes that the stereotype of poorly behaved children is also based on limited experiences with children, and not realizing that children who spend time with adults are often better behaved around adults.
“There needs to be a shift, a recognition that children are not accessories,” she continues. “They alter our lives absolutely and comprehensively, and we are different people because we are parents, and that difference has to be embraced, whether we’re in public, at restaurants, or at work.”
There is research that shows both parents and non-parents alike are actually quite happy with babies in the workplace once programs have been implemented.
Mary Secret, associate professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls parenting in the workplace a “practical, low-cost, and effective child care response to particular work-family dilemmas created when employed parents are unable to locate or access either routine or back-up child care.” In her research published in Boston College’s Sloan Work and Family Research Network, Secret notes that employers who allow employees to bring their babies to work find it to be less intrusive than anticipated. She finds that these employers maintained worker productivity and saw decreased absenteeism, all the while inspiring greater worker loyalty—a situation that happened at HometownQuotes.
Says Fearn, “You invest in your employees, and it turns back with your employees investing in you. Again, it’s a win-win.”
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