Companies make room for baby

Despite distractions, they offer this unusual benefit to retain workers.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Naptime: Jenny Guevarra tends to her baby daughter at Valley Credit Union in San Jose, Calif. It is one of more than 100 workplaces that let employees care for babies in the office.
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Between processing loans and checking e-mails, Jenny Guevarra stops to feed her baby daughter Liana Jasmine, cooing in a playpen next to her cubicle. Liana Jasmine is the second baby she has cared for while working at Valley Credit Union in San Jose, Calif. For Ms. Guevarra, the no-cost alternative sure beats daycare.

"I really am hesitant to put either of my kids in daycare because it's scary to leave them with someone else besides yourself or [your] husband. Having her here with me, I know what she's doing," she says in a telephone interview.

Between 2001 to 2003, approximately 25 percent of women left the workforce after having their first baby, according to US Census Bureau statistics released this year. Whenever expectant mothers leave the workplace, employers must scramble to fill their positions or redistribute their workloads to existing staff.

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But for an estimated 104 US workplaces, the solution has been to bring the baby to work. Valley Credit Union has hosted 54 babies since its program began a decade ago. Currently, the office is hosting three babies with five more on the way.

"For us, it has defined our culture and allowed us to find some great ways to help our staff balance life and work for their benefit as well as ours," says Debbie Sallen, the company's vice president of human resources. "With the babies in the workplace program, the parents come back sooner; they work even harder when they have babies because they are appreciative."

More employers take notice

Parenting-in-the-workplace programs have been around for at least 30 years, according to Mary Secret, an associate professor in the social work department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has completed two studies on the subject. She notes that while there has been more discussion among employers about these programs, she is uncertain whether that reflects an increasing trend in this type of childcare.

One website, babiesatwork.org, lists companies that give employees the option of bringing babies to work. It also provides guidelines for employers who may want to use such a program.

"I think because people are more exposed to the idea, they are more willing to consider it and see the ways this can work" says the website's creator, Carla Moquin, who is also president of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute in Framingham, Mass.

The programs have allowed mothers to return to work sooner, Ms. Moquin notes, something that benefits employers. "

Smaller businesses can't afford expensive paid maternity leave," she says. "And the employer doesn't have to hire temps or worry about mistakes." The baby programs, she says, "lead to higher loyalty, higher retention, higher morale" in the organizations.

They have also reduced workloads that co-workers would often have to pick up in the absence of a person on maternity leave, Ms. Secret says. "These kinds of programs help businesses achieve their goals," she says. "They keep people at work."

T3, an advertising firm in Austin, Texas, implemented a babies-at-work program after five key women employees announced their pregnancies. The company "didn't want to risk losing them," says Courtney Layton, public relations executive for T3. The company places returning mothers and their babies in a separate office to give them privacy and avoid disturbing other workers. The program, which has hosted over 50 babies since 1995, has "fostered a family-friendly work environment," Ms. Layton says.

Parents have also benefitted economically from the programs. There are "so many more families that can't make it on one income and don't want babies in daycare for months," Moquin says. "The cost of daycare is so high."

With babies, come challenges

But bringing babies to work isn't a policy that's taking off with all employees, nor is it a fit for every company. The prospect of crying babies or stinky diapers may lead co-workers to pack up the contents of their cubicle or voice complaints. "It may not be as pleasant an experience" for an employee to be surrounded by babies, says Lane Transou, who tracks compensation and benefit trends for the Society of Human Resource Management.

Babies-at-work policies are "predominantly in small companies and informal," Ms. Transou says in a telephone interview. "It's unusual to see them for many reasons. Mostly, it's a liability the company would have to carry."

Renee Taylor, a commercial real estate broker in Raleigh, N.C., tried bringing both of her babies to work, but on both occasions, she found it to be a challenge. "It was extremely distracting. It was really frustrating," Ms. Taylor says. "I didn't really get anything out of it because instead of doing one thing well, I was doing two things badly."

While researching businesses in Ohio with parenting in the workplace programs in 2005, Secret found one company that discontinued its program after one week because the co-workers paid too much attention to the baby. "I think that would have worn off after the first week or so," she says.

For some companies, private offices for childcare aren't an option. So Moquin suggests that they consider baby-free zones – a space where the parent can tend to the baby's needs without interrupting nearby workers.

Returning mothers can also take steps to pave the way for a smooth transition before the baby arrives, says Moquin. She encourages parents to e-mail nearby employees to announce the arrival of a baby at the office. Returning mothers should also ask a few co-workers if they would be willing to watch their baby if they need to attend a meeting or step away from their cubicle.

At Valley Credit Union, mothers are allowed bring their babies to work until they are 8 months old or crawling. That time has been meaningful for Guevarra, who adds that she has enjoyed spending time with her baby, "watching her grow, not missing any of her milestones."

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