You Don't Have to Be Marissa Mayer to Bring Your Baby to Work With You

Some companies are allowing employees on all levels of the org chart to care for their kids in the office.

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There are plenty of reasons people objected to Marissa Mayer's decision to end remote working at Yahoo: that it was backward, that it was bad for working families. But perhaps the most compelling one was that her decree was hypocritical. She takes her baby to work: she built a private nursery next to her office. Of course, 99 percent of workers do not have the cash or clout to do this. Ninety-six percent of women in the labor force earn less than $100,000, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Even the vast majority of those residing in the lucky top four percent still cannot afford to construct a custom baby-at-work home away from home.

Yet moms and dads of new babies need not be millionaire CEOs to take a baby to work. Babies-at-work programs are springing up across the world, allowing employees to care for their babies for the first several months of life while doing their jobs. The programs are not on-site day care. Instead, parents perform their regular jobs while wearing, feeding, and watching over an infant. According to Carla Moquin, founder and CEO of Babies in Business Solutions, 185 organizations have permitted more than 2,100 babies to come to work with parents across 43 states in the U.S., as well as in Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The companies adopting a babies-at-work initiative currently occupy 30 industries, including credit unions, management consulting firms, stores, schools, and law offices. The largest known organization with a baby program is a 3,000-employee Kansas government agency; the largest private sector company is Addison Lee, a British taxi-cab company featured in a BBC documentary that lets 500 office employees avail themselves of the option.

It works like this. Parents-to-be often initiate a conversation with employers about bringing a baby to work, though managers are often grateful to hear innovative suggestions to retain a key employee once parental leave has ended. While researching my book, The Custom-Fit Workplace, I found managers eager to maintain consistency in service to the important clients a new parent serves and to prevent valued parents from off-ramping only to return to work later for a competitor. With that as motivation, managers set up a program that says who is eligible, for how long (usually until a baby starts crawling), and how to handle liability concerns and problems that could arise. Office workers bring the baby there; cubicle workers either keep the baby in their work area or are sometimes temporarily given an office to use while the baby comes to work. The baby is cared for as needs arise, reducing the chance of meltdown crying. While parents with babies at work are expected to get their jobs done, their work methods change—"power spurts" is a way one woman described it. Another said she would email, edit, conference call, and update the firm's web site while breastfeeding her infant. Co-workers voluntarily pitch in and parents take work home. "It takes a village," remarked many of the people involved with babies-at-work programs.

Babies in Business Solutions' Moquin notes that babies-at-work programs enable employees to be present in the office for the face-to-face contact that Yahoo's Marissa Mayer deemed essential to creative collaboration, idea incubation, and teamwork. Moquin says companies describe them as win-win-win: for the business, babies, and workers—both parents and co-workers, who see a spike in their own morale from babies' humanizing presence. And fathers are keen to participate: When a Hawaii credit union kicked off its babies-at-work program, a dad was the first parent to sign up.

To be sure, a parent-employee's minute-to-minute productivity can suffer when a baby is at work, but this isn't generally a deal-breaker because the parents make up for it by becoming more efficient. Companies, in fact, report significant increases in loyalty and retention when they offer this program and sometimes productivity gains—not only by motivated parents bringing babies to work but also by the happier co-workers enjoying the babies' presence. And if you want to see a mom "leaning in" to her career even after giving birth, here's a great place to look.

Of course, babies do cry and fuss and guidelines for handling disruptions must be defined and adhered to by parents. And not all jobs are suitable for bringing infants to work, but neither are all jobs suitable for telecommuting or other workflex options. It all depends and no one size fits all. Scholars once called this the "contingency theory" of organizational design, an idea lost in the heat of feelings about Yahoo's end to telework and then Best Buy's end to its "results only working environment." The American workforce needs workplace flexibility options: 70 percent of all families have both parents in the paid labor force. A babies-at-work program is one option that works for some jobs when babies are young. At a time when last summer's "having it all" conversation pointed to a need for more work flexibility, and today's debate about how even mothers of small children should "lean in," innovative solutions like babies-at-work can help.