Oh, baby! Benefits and challenges of infants in the workplace
While the concept of bringing a very young child to work isn’t new, formalized programs in private and public organizations are on track to give millennial and Gen Z employees flexibility in childcare that they crave.
About 200 companies offer such programs, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute. Also, in December, New Hampshire joined Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, North Dakota, Washington and Vermont in launching a policy allowing state employees to bring infants to the workplace.
Gov. Chris Sununu said the program dovetails with a proposed voluntary paid-family-leave program to help “move [New Hampshire] forward as a place people want to work and to help state government stay competitive in such a strong economy.”
Programs such as New Hampshire’s and others allow parents to bring children over 6 weeks old into the workplace, given it has already been set up to promote a safe and healthy environment for the new denizen. The arrangement usually ends when the child becomes mobile or is 6 months old—whichever comes first, as long as the parents and the kids follow a set of co-worker- and productivity-friendly rules.
Attracting and retaining workers—including those on the younger side—is tough in a tight labor market but, in some organizations, well-planned and fairly implemented babies-at-work programs can be an HR boon, says Marta Turba, vice president of content for WorldatWork, the Total Rewards Association.
“It inserts a level of humanity and care into the workplace,” Turba notes. “When we talk about an employee wellbeing program, those are the things that make a difference. Employees really want to know that they work for a company that cares about people [and] about families.”
Along with the trend comes the HR challenges of developing and implementing a program that is attractive to new parents, fair to co-workers and promotes high performance.
“When you do it correctly, [a babies-at-work initiative] is a benefit program that can … overcome your aging workforce and attract those young families to join an employer,” Turba says. “It’s really a talent differentiator overall that leads to productivity because there’s fewer job openings and less turnover. It’s kind of a win-win.”
Establishing a formal written policy with a lot of detail provides good checks and balances, notes Carla Moquin, who founded the Parenting in the Workplace Institute in 2007. Her website provides parents with information about companies that have successful policies and offers guidance to new moms and dads about pursuing the creation of such programs with their own employer. Free downloadable template policies are built on lessons learned at other organizations.
Moquin says starting with a pilot program is a wise move, to make sure the approach is the right one for the employer and the employees. Key program principles include establishing clear expectations for the employee’s performance during the arrangement, being specific about which workspaces are safe for having babies in them, establishing an alternative caregiver arrangement—a fellow worker, for example—if the parent needs to focus on work instead of the baby’s immediate needs and creating an easy “out” for both the employee and the manager/company if the situation just isn’t working out.
She also suggests that everyone involved have patience during the transition period, which usually takes about a week for both parent and baby to get into the groove.
Jennifer Edwards, partner at the law firm BakerHostetler in Columbus, Ohio, reaffirms that considerations for co-workers should be part of the plan, including offering alternative locations for the co-worker or the parent should the baby be too distracting—whether because the sound is disruptive or workers are too tempted to pick the babies up and coo at them.
Edwards stresses the program should treat everyone the same, so claims of disparate impact aren’t an issue: “It’s important to have a written policy that is gender-neutral, since cases in recent years have focused on new fathers being treated differently than new mothers.”
Most parents readily agree to the details of the policy, Moquin says, because they “want to maintain good standing among their co-workers and don’t want to be perceived as slacking off.” Plus, they end up being more productive with their time because they know they can be interrupted at any time by a cry, a feeding or a diaper change.
The biggest reason organizations choose to support their new parents in this way is because it gives the employee flexibility, the employer a more loyal worker and builds a culture that makes everyone feel more connected, Edwards suggests. “If it’s a family-based company, for example, or one that already has pretty extensive leave benefits and it is already geared towards supporting new parents, we’re going to see [programs like these] be more successful in those situations.”
Most often, the novelty wears off pretty quickly, and after a few months, the program becomes an accepted aspect of the workplace. There can also be unexpected positive moments that crop up just because a baby is in the workplace, Moquin says: “People will absolutely go visit the baby if they’re having a bad day.”
Family-friendly benefits, including some mentioned here, will be discussed during the upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, which will be April 15-17 at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Learn more here.