Babies have been coming into the offices of GL Group for 25 years. As a family-owned wholesaler of literature and educational materials, a family-friendly culture has existed for as long as the company (45 years). Jennifer Patterson, GL Group’s director of HR, says that the babies-at-work program started with a simple request. A pregnant female employee decided to ask then-CEO Sandy Jaffe if she could bring her baby back to work with her. Jaffe agreed, and the rest is history.
Though Patterson wasn’t with the company 25 years ago, she says the request fit the company’s family-first culture and values. Jaffe wanted to make that new mom’s transition back to work as easy as possible, so why not try it? After the success of the first baby, the program was rolled out company-wide.
There have been some tweaks to the program over the years, but current policy states that it’s available to parents who have been with the company for at least six months (in good standing) and work in an environment that’s safe for babies. Patterson says that warehouse employees can’t participate in this program because of the unsafe environment in which they work. Instead, GL Group offers these parents weekly stipends to use for daycare or other care arrangements.
Babies can come to work until they’re six months old or mobile, whichever happens first. After that, parents are given $150 a week to use for childcare until the baby’s first birthday.
From the start, Patterson says, there haven’t been any real issues with the program. The worst-case scenario is a fussy baby. She cites a personal experience when her daughter Evelyn was having a rough afternoon.
“It was 2 p.m. and my boss told me I could go home,” says Patterson. “I was able to leave, not disrupt my coworkers and come back the next day to catch up on what I missed the previous afternoon.”
Employees don’t abuse the policy, either, she says, adding that rather than use the baby as an excuse to leave early, employees work harder and are more invested in their jobs because they appreciate this experience.
“This program helps us with retention and productivity–because we respect this new transition in parents’ lives, they’re proud to work for us and we get to keep these fantastic, productive, engaged employees,” she says.
Of course, such a program invites criticism, says Carla Moquin, founder of Parenting in the Workplace, a non-profit that researches and provides resources for the implementation of formal babies-at-work programs. She says that while there are more than 200 babies-at-work programs in the United States, there’s a lot of skepticism and hostility to this concept in theory. To make it work, there needs to be a top-down approach and complete transparency.
There will always be employees who think babies don’t belong at work, but if an employer approaches the concept with honesty, most employees come around, adds Moquin.
“The critical factor is setting up a formal, structured policy to anticipate problems that could occur,” she says. “Some small companies have tried out this program without any structure, and once an issue occurred, they ended the program. If you have clear rules, things will run smoothly.”
Supporting New Parents
Last month, the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa rolled out their own babies-at-work program. CEO Beth Shelton says one of her pregnant employees asked if she could return to work with her baby. Shelton was initially hesitant.
“Quite honestly I thought there’s no way this could work,” she says. “I pictured baby mayhem: a workplace with crying babies everywhere.”
But Shelton says she and the other leaders at Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa do their best to listen to employees and to say yes, unless there’s a good reason to say no. She took 24 hours to reflect on the request and in that time went from skeptic to advocate. She says a real turning point for her was the research she uncovered that revealed the severity of the gender wage gap for working mothers.
Research from National Bureau of Economic Research found that between ages 25 and 45 the gender pay gap for college graduates, which starts at nearly zero, widens by 55 percentage points. The gap is slightly smaller for those without college degrees, at 28 percentage points.
Shelton brought the idea to the rest of the executive team and earned their buy-in for a babies-at-work program. From there, all employees at the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa were invited to discuss the program in an open forum, where anyone could air their support or concerns about it. Shelton says afterward they sent around an anonymous survey for anyone who may have felt uncomfortable speaking up in the meeting.
“People may have sensitivities about being around babies–anything from struggles with infertility to chronic migraines,” Shelton says. “To make a move like this, we needed the whole culture in the workplace to feel united and move forward together. We wanted to make sure people had input and that we could learn and grow together.”
With no opposition, the babies-at-work program was implemented within 5 weeks’ time. It’s available to all new parents who work with the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa full-time. All that’s required is to review and sign the 10-page policy guidelines and meet with either Shelton or the CFO to discuss logistics, needs and work expectations. They welcomed Finley, the first baby of the program, in December.
Shelton says everyone is aware that productivity will dip initially for parents (and co-workers who come to meet the babies) because being at work with an infant is so new, but a small blip in productivity doesn’t negate the need to support new parents as they transition back to work.
The typical estimate of parents’ productivity at work with a baby is 80 percent minute to minute, says Moquin. But few people are 100-percent productive all day. Research finds that employees are productive for five to six hours in an eight-hour workday–some even suggest the number is closer to three hours a day.
“Parents will work really hard to not have to stop bringing their baby to work with them,” says Moquin. “They’ll work through lunch and switch their schedules. Parents work hard not to be perceived as slacking off. Coworkers are often amazed at how well parents can do their work.”
Rachael McCann, senior director of health and benefits at Willis Towers Watson, says she hasn’t seen many employers allowing new parents to bring infants to work. More commonly, she’s seen near or onsite child care, emergency child-care reimbursements, milk shipping for nursing mothers and even breast pump evaluation included through a health plan.
She adds that the role and nature of the business will influence whether this benefit makes sense for the organization. For the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa, the benefit aligns with their culture by supporting and celebrating women both as mothers and working professionals.
“Culture is key to a benefit like this working and the individuals feeling they are psychologically safe to bring their child to work without concern or judgment related to their potential performance,” she says.
Right now, Shelton says, the biggest concern in the office is when baby Finley leaves.
“We’ve been fielding questions of whether 6 months is long enough. We’ve been lucky that our first baby has been so easygoing,” she says, adding “we’ll see what happens with the next one.”