When Offices Double as Nurseries

California firms encourage mothers to bring their babies to the workplace

AT first glance, Laura Graves's spacious office at the San Jose National Bank resembles that of any other bank vice president, with its handsome cherry desk, matching credenza, swivel chair, and art on the wall.

But look again. Tucked behind the door is a bassinet on wheels. On one side of the carpeted floor sits a wind-up swing; on the other side, an infant play gym. A bottle warmer stands on a file cabinet. Next to Ms. Graves's chair, a stroller holds her three-month-old son, Jarrod, who smiles contentedly from his ringside seat.

Is this an office or a nursery? For now it is both. As part of a novel program called Babies in the Workplace, Jarrod can accompany his mother to work and spend the day in her care until he is six months old.

Babies and bankers would appear to be an unlikely combination. But last summer, when four women in key positions announced their pregnancies, President Jim Kenney knew he needed a creative solution.

``We couldn't afford to lose them,'' Mr. Kenney says. Nor could he afford to have nearly 10 percent of his staff out for four-month unpaid maternity leaves, as provided by a federal parental- leave law.

A bank customer, Billye Ericksen, president of Capsco Sales Inc. in nearby Sunnyvale, told Kenney she had ``the perfect solution.'' For nearly 12 years, Ms. Ericksen has allowed employees to care for their infants at work. Kenney, himself a father, decided to copy the plan, making the bank and Capsco the only companies in the United States to offer such a policy.

Kenney announced the plan to his staff on Aug. 5, the day the Family and Medical Leave Act took effect. He told the women, ``If you come back to work earlier, you can bring Junior with you.''

In October, Fernanda Carreira, supervisor of the note department, returned with her two-month-old daughter, Jessica. In December, controller Brenda Paciolla came back with her infant son, Tony. Graves, a vice president in charge of marketing and personnel, returned in February with Jarrod. And last week the fourth new mother, bookkeeper Rebecca Carrillo, came back with her two-month-old son, Jeffrey.

Kenney established a few guidelines: Mothers can't ask colleagues to baby sit for long stretches, and they must confine diaper-changing and breast-feeding to private areas. He also reserves the right to discontinue the program if it proves unworkable.

So far, the babies have won the hearts even of skeptics. ``I was afraid people would be oohing and aahing over the babies all the time and not getting work done,'' says Kristie Kayser, data processing manager. ``But it hasn't been disruptive. Now I think it's great.''

Flexibility is the key. ``We get inventive,'' Graves says. She calls her baby swing ``the time machine'' because ``it buys me some time in a meeting.'' The play gym ``is good for about 15 minutes.'' And nap time offers a chance for uninterrupted work.

Even so, no one is pretending that challenges don't arise. If a baby cries in a meeting, mother and baby must make a quick exit, although Kenney finds that ``the mothers are more tense about the crying than anyone else.''

Then there is the issue of productivity. ``You're used to getting more done,'' Ms. Paciolla says. For Paciolla, the arrangement lasted only a month. Her busiest season is January. ``It just didn't work to have Tony here then,'' she says.

Still, Graves says, ``Hour for hour we're probably just as productive as always. You cut out the chatting.'' And Kenney reasons that even if the women can only do six hours of work in an eight-hour day, the plan is still beneficial to the bank.

Graves acknowledges that the program was ``a risky move'' for a financial institution. ``People could have said, `Don't put your money in that bank - they may be too busy counting fingers and toes instead of your deposit.' But it's turned out to be very, very positive for our reputation.''

So positive, in fact, that one woman opened a $30,000 certificate of deposit after hearing a local television news item about the plan. Several other new customers also established accounts after hearing about it. And one woman left Graves a telephone message, saying, ``I just want to commend you on how great this is. Somebody's got to raise these children. It's nice to see a company taking on social responsibility for such things.''

Other encouraging responses have come from vendors of the bank. When Graves sets up appointments, she tells them about the program. ``I let them know the baby will be in the meeting with us,'' she says. ``In follow-up letters, they often say, `It was a pleasure to meet you and your son.' I'm saving those for the baby book.''

Could this become the wave of the future, putting bassinets in boardrooms across the country? Kenney, Ericksen, and others doubt it.

``I don't think it will be a trend,'' says Charles Rodgers of Work/Family Directions, a consulting firm in Boston. ``In many jobs it's probably difficult to bring this off successfully, either from the point of view of the parent or the business itself. But these kinds of dramatic solutions shouldn't surprise us very much. They demonstrate the extreme difficulty parents have in finding quality and affordable child care for infants.''

Kenney remains enthusiastic, saying, ``It's a win-win situation for everyone. There's no down side to it.''

Carreira, summing up the feelings of all the mothers, adds, ``It helped me mentally. I wasn't prepared to leave my baby. I got a little more time with her. It made me a happier person.''

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