Babies at Work: It’s Weird that it’s Weird
The crew over at Tilde started the year with a new somewhat uncommon policy: new parents (mothers or fathers) could bring their immobile infants to work with them. Your new little one was (is!) welcome to tag along to work until six months, or until they start crawling. The first baby started hanging around the office in February, and we’ve been happily off to the races ever since.
Admittedly, since we work together, my husband and I started researching the topic somewhat selfishly. As first-time parents, we just weren’t ready to think about about leaving our shiny new kiddo with someone else.
(Mind you, that’s what my Mom had to do back in her day, and I think I turned out fine. It’s a thoroughly viable, acceptable and responsible thing to do, our personal first-time-parent-selves just weren’t ready for it.)
We’re also business owners, so one of us taking off an extended period of time wasn’t a super viable option either. That felt like abandoning our first baby, the company, to care for the second, the actual baby. Having a baby does change the priorities, but at least for us, it was not a signal for the end of our ambitions to continue building and running the tech company we’d always wanted to work for. So what then?
There needed to be some way for us to be good stewards to both the company and the tiny human. So we started researching.
The most obvious option was company childcare. While it’s still something we’d like to offer one day, it wasn’t a very viable option for a business of our size for reasons related to cost, insurance/liability concerns, local laws about childcare facilities, and space constraints. So we toyed with the idea for a while before moving on.
Somewhere in our research I stumbled on an article that I haven’t been able to find since, about a company that had just hired the first person who had been an infant-at-work in their workplace. As in, some 18+ years ago, they’d started letting babies come to work, and full circle, they were now hiring the very babies they’d all doted on way back when.
It was a feel-good human interest piece, but more importantly, introduced me to the concept of parents bringing babies to work. At the same time, my husband and business partner took another route to the idea, and pointed me at the Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PIWI). Last but not least, a former employee brought up that they’d had it at a workplace years earlier, and that everyone had felt happier with the babies around. It still felt like a foreign concept, but we started digging into it.
At the start, I was skeptical for a host of reasons. Honestly, it’s a struggle to remember them now, but at the time they felt pressing and possibly insurmountable. I remember reading through the FAQ document from PIWI and not shockingly seeing many of my top concerns reflected there:
- But babies cry! Won’t it be miserable?
- How will a parent (or others for that matter) get anything done?
- Won’t it make the whole working environment seem unprofessional or less serious?
My husband read the answers and found them comforting. I read them and found them reasonable, but unconvincing. To be honest, emotionally, my initial reaction was that it was an impractical idea, and I held on to that for a nice long while. If my husband hadn’t been pushing and pushing for it, I likely would’ve given up when I still felt squeamish a month into mulling it over.
In retrospect, though it was obvious to him at the time, I was just a little too stuck in my ways and focused on my preconceived notions. Even when I agreed to do a trial run when we had our baby, I fully expected it to be a failure. Spoiler alert: I was wrong.
There’s no great reveal, and no irony about why. Nothing that changed dramatically, no circumstantial twist. Clear as day, I was just plain wrong. My concerns were overblown and my negative emotional reaction 100% about it being a new and scary idea. Six months in, what I can even remember about my concerns seem kind of comical.
Chalk it up to a lack of imagination combined with resistance to change. And perhaps a pinch of buying into random sententious rhetoric about purist work environments and rigid professionalism. My bad.
Babies are pretty great and other fun perks
As it turns out, having babies at work is fun!
I’m biased, because one of them is mine, but people are always popping their heads in to give the baby a big smile and try to get one in return. Also, when the baby’s there, people know them, and what would otherwise be a potentially over-wrought personal life topic becomes more interesting and relevant to your coworkers (whether or not they have their own kids). They’re all just a tiny bit invested in this thing that’s the new center of your universe, and it helps everyone get along better, and empathize with the new parents more effectively and sincerely.
Most of us are pretty much pre-wired to find babies charming and happy-making. After all, if we didn’t, we might stop making them, and bye bye human race. They trigger endorphins, remind us about innocence and pure intentions, and just make us all laugh—because babies are funny!
Having babies around has made the office just plain feel better, and having more in common with each other makes us feel more connected.
Babies also need to socialize. There’s increasing evidence that a child’s early language development is deeply dependent on how many words they hear. The more they hear, the better they do, and the earlier they do better. So being around numerous different people at the office can also help the infants-at-work babies succeed as older children and eventually as adults.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. The people you spend 40 hours a week with can help be that village. They can help expose your child to different personas, physical characteristics, languages, and so on, and enrich their overall character and the diversity of their experience from the very start of their lives.
Supporting new parents and retaining employees
Even if unlike me you are gung-ho about leaving your newborn with a childcare provider, or if you have things like local helpful family to soften the blow, it’s still hard.
You’ve just spent months or maybe years trying to create this thing, and now it’s here, and it’s unendingly vulnerable, and it needs the heck out of you. But then, you also need your job, so you can feed it, and clothe it, and help send it off to college one day.
For me, one of the strongest emotions of my immediate post-partum period was conflict. The two things I need to do to take care of my child are incompatible: how do I be physically here for my baby, but also out there nurturing my career so I can provide for the baby?
The US is not a great place to have a baby, at least by comparison to similar alternatives; we have the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
If you make it out alive, we’re then the worst at mandated paid maternity leave, in that we have none.
Many potential parents are stuck with an either/or choice: professional success, or a family. But not both (much like the trials of women in academia, who also struggle to have it all). If you’re among those who make less than around $75k/year, or in the bottom 94%, you’re especially SOL.
We’ve made offering paid parental leave a priority at Tilde, but we’re also a small, fledgling business, with very real overhead and not a ton of wiggle room. Our paid parental leave perks are better than most companies our size (and something we have plans to improve as the business gets older and more successful), but still woefully less than ideal.
We encourage new parents to take unpaid leave for additional time, beyond what we can afford in paid leave, and beyond using up any available PTO. But for anyone who can’t afford to take us up on that, or just doesn’t want to take a career break that long, being able to bring the baby back to work with you makes things a lot easier.
It means that at least right away, your financial success and parental success are not at odds with each other. You can do both, if you want to do both. (And if you don’t, well that’s of course fine too.)
You can come back to work when you feel like you’re ready to physically and emotionally, whether or not you have a longer term childcare plan sorted. You can come back to work while still breastfeeding without needing to go the pumping route. And you can come back to work when you want to, without feeling guilty about leaving your new little one.
It’s an obvious win in terms of employee happiness, and an obvious win in terms of employee retention. The babies think it’s pretty nifty too.
According to Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, “Only 74% of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and 40% will return to full time jobs.”
Forgetting the potentially contentious ideological overhead involved in that book, that’s a pretty crushing stat. We know many of those women don’t return because they can’t. They work jobs that don’t accommodate their immediate post-partum needs, their longer term child rearing needs, or both. It’s a staggeringly distressing attrition rate, and seems absurd when you consider that bearing children is literally a primary human function.
It’s a delicate balance, because we want to encourage parents to take as much leave as they need and want, but we also want to make it easy for them if they can’t afford to or don’t want to be out of the workforce for that long. The best we’ve come up with to do is to provide options like the infant-at-work program, so parents have the choice, and can come back earlier if they want to.
Like anything, you can be scrappy about your setup, or you can go all out. We’re a small company with a small office, but it’s thoroughly big enough to accommodate the program, and also accidentally has most of the things we’d want if we’d chosen our space with the program in mind.
For unrelated reasons, Tilde doesn’t do open plan offices. Instead we have many private offices, most accommodating two employees (in our case, in a pair programming setup), mostly pretty roomy, and all with doors to help with sound.
So at any given time, if your baby happens to be fussing a bit, the number of colleagues you might really be irritating is one. The person sharing your office at that particular moment (in our case, officemates rotate based on who you’re pairing with that day or week). It’s not that “just one person” doesn’t count, but instead that you can probably find a way to make it work around the particular concerns or needs of one individual.
Also, in the months where an infant is with a parent at the office, if the parent is more comfortable with it, we’ll focus on assigning them tasks that have them working more on their own (versus pairing). The whole program lasts months not years, so even if solo tasks aren’t the standard for your team, it can likely be made to work for just the few program months.
Our offices are thankfully roomy enough these days that we also have room for parents to bring along reasonably-sized childcare tools. I’ve got a Rock n’ Play and Playmat in my office, and an engineer down the hall has a Pack n’ Play and Boppy in hers. Most of the offices have at least one couch or comfortable living room type chair as well, for a comfy breast or bottle feeding spot if the parent doesn’t choose to go to the available designated (shared) feeding room.
We’ve made room in the kitchen for a bottle warmer and drying rack, and cleared a roomy surface in one of our supply offices for a changing table and related accessories. We’ve made space for things like Moms being able to leave their breast pumps in the room where they pump if they so choose, to minimize the time it takes to get everything set up and then tear it down again. If you look in our office fridge or freezer, you’re likely to see a bottle or cooler, and no one really blinks an eye at either.
These are all things that might feel like a big ask in a work environment that hasn’t thought to provide them, but that in reality just aren’t that big a deal. They’re small footprint, low or no cost, and they make a huge difference in the comfort level and convenience levels of new parents.
My top drawer is filled with office supplies and miscellany. My bottom drawer with filed paperwork and my emergency snack stash. If you open my middle drawer though, it’s pacifiers, diapers and burp cloths. It feels par for the course. We pop down the hall to borrow toys or white noise machines, and it’s common to see a stroller in the halls.
The main thing we don’t have that I wish we did is yet another private space that could be the designated crying area. In an effort to be reasonable and to keep the working environment productive, there’s language in our policy documents about what to do if your baby is crying loudly for more than a short period of time.
The TL;DR is that the baby should be removed until it calms down; take a walk, basically. I’d be happier if instead of “you might need to leave with your baby for a bit” we could say “you might need to leave the office you share with someone and spend some time in our sound-proofed calming room.”
For now, we have a conference room that’s on the opposite end of the office from where people sit, and that’s our interim solution—assuming it’s available. So you’re still not in a great spot if your baby happens to have a really bad few minutes while the conference room is occupied. Honestly it hasn’t ever come up yet, not once. Take that, pre-baby-skeptical-me!
Overall I’d say this sort of stuff is only feasible if your office just isn’t overly cramped. You don’t have to have nearly as much room as we do, but you don’t want to be in a position where space is so constrained that people resent the baby + baby stuff being around simply because it makes them feel squished.
Everyone at work wants to be respectful of colleagues needs, preferences and productivity concerns. Since programs like this are so uncommon, most participating parents are going to be very concerned about the comfort levels of their colleagues, and overly attentive to their baby’s needs. They want the program to work, and they want their coworkers to not find it too inconveniencing and consider advocating against it.
A responsible Infants-at-Work program participant will only bring a baby that can reasonably and peacefully co-exist around others. That doesn’t mean the baby can’t ever cry: it just means if a baby is constantly crying, that it might not be the best fit. But despite the concerns of lots of folks who don’t have babies, it just isn’t the case that a majority of babies are wailing 24/7. Sure, some babies are colicky or have other specific issues, but even most of those babies aren’t yelling 100% of the time.
By the time most parents are ready to come back to work, they’ve learned a bit about their infant. About what makes them happy, sad, and yes, loud. And these are things that parents can work around and make plans to deal with.
Perhaps the answer is to have the baby with you in the office only part time, during the hours you know they’re usually calm. Perhaps the answer is to have the baby there full time, but plan to work remotely on vaccination days, bad teething days, or whatever other predictable thing might upset their routine good nature. Maybe you buy a second one of the magical swing, toy, device, soundtrack or insert-thing-here that helps your kiddo stay calm and leave it at the office. Whatever works.
While babies can be unpredictable, much about the experience is predictable, and a responsible Infants-at-Work participant will craft contingencies around making sure their baby isn’t too disruptive to colleagues. Last but not least, if a parent brings a baby to work, and for some inexplicable reason it turns out to be baby’s-worst-day-ever, they’ll almost certainly notice, and either leave with the baby or have someone else come and take the baby elsewhere. It’s really just not that big a deal.
Open minded colleagues
At Tilde we’ve optimized for a team of nice, smart, considerate and open minded colleagues. On each and every one of those metrics, I’m probably the worst performer at the company: that’s by design! I always aim to hire people who are better than I am, at something or everything, and I’ve been lucky enough to largely succeed at that.
So while I shared that I’d had my doubts, I probably had more of them than anyone else on the team. For the most part, people thought it was a novel experiment, that it might be fun, and that we should give it a go. Worst case was that it would be a total bust, we’d have a few unproductive months, and we’d cancel the program after a trial period.
This is one of those “I’m so glad I was wrong” things for us now. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the accommodation of not needing to choose between my career and my family. Professionally, I was able to ease back into work when I felt ready, and without Mom-guilt about leaving my baby. Socially, it’s been fun to have Jonas get to know my colleagues and get out of the house so much.
It’s still early in the lifetime of this experiment for us, but I feel really good about having implemented our Infants-at-Work program. I feel good because it feels good, but also because it’s important to me and to Tilde to support parents in the workforce, especially in the tech world, where women in particular are so starkly underrepresented.
One of the first bits of rhetoric you might face when proposing a Babies at Work program is the ever-pressing children aren’t appropriate in the workplace.
Considering that propagating the species has been a core function of human development forever, modern society’s attitude about child bearing and rearing is peculiar. Considering what would happen to the species if we stopped procreating, it’s even more strange. You’d think we’d be hard-wired to find notions like this silly.
There are so many ways to do away with this response, not the least of which is that it’s non-specific and not an actual objection. High on my list is also something along the lines of “let’s talk about what other things people have historically found inappropriate, like for example, women working at all, or equal human rights for all.” (You’ll also find that many of the objections could have breastfeeding slid in place of an objection to the program, and don’t even get me started on that :p).
But in a less snarky vein, I liked the reply Jennifer Labit gave in her post on the topic:
I wonder if we have to ask this question because our culture has defined “normal” to be something different than reality. Women have babies. Babies need their parents. Cultural norms in the Western world have traditionally confined mothers of young children to home-making. While that is what some women want to do, it isn’t what all of us want to do. As long as mom enjoys doing her job with her baby at her side and it is safe for her baby to be with her while she does her job, I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to have her baby present.
Humans have babies. It’s just what we’ve always done, and it’s an important and amazing part of the human experience. Topics like this are seen largely as women’s issues because women tend to do the statistical lion’s share of the child-related work, but it’s an everyone issue. Workplaces that support families and parents are all around better for society, better for our families, and yes, better for our workplaces. It’s weird that we think it’s weird.
Whether or not an employer can get on board with the moral and empathetic talking points, supporting the parents they employ in this and other ways is just good business. Happy employees stick around, and long term employees are effective and productive in ways that are just plain inaccessible to folks who rotate in and out of companies every year or two. If employers have to think of it as a retention program, by all means, do! It’s not my favorite perk, but it’s on the list for sure.
My husband-slash-co-founder and I did a ton of reading before embarking on this adventure. We also talked to experts, lawyers, landlords, insurance companies and more. For the most part, folks found the idea surprising, but then pretty easy to get on board with.
The most useful person I talked to in my initial investigation was a woman named Carla Moquin, founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute. We had a short conversation where she was encouraging, but also realistic, and willing to be frank in her replies to my concerns. She assuaged many of my concerns, and for the ones she couldn’t, acknowledged them as as real and relevant, and offered ideas and encouragement.
All the tactical stuff aside, just talking to someone so confident that this was a good idea really helped nudge me towards the experiment. If you have the opportunity to chat with Carla, take advantage, and if you work for a company considering an Infants-at-Work program, I’d highly recommend bringing her on board for some consulting time to help you make it happen.
PIWI can also help out with free templates for the various bits of paperwork you’ll want for your program. Use them as a baseline, and customize to fit your company, culture and business concerns.
Last but not least, here’s a longer-than-you’d-expect list of articles on the topic (and it’s just a smattering of what’s out there if you go hunting). Find the one that most speaks to you, and share it with your employer, whether you’re a new parent or not.
Our Infants-at-Work program has been a smashing success so far. Here’s to yours!
- Bringing Baby to Work, New York Times, October 2008
- You Don’t Have to Be Marissa Mayer to Bring Your Baby to Work With You, The Atlantic, March 2013
- Infant at Work Program Grows to 10 State Agencies, King5 News in Western Washington, June 2017
- Arizona State Employees are Bringing Their Babies to Work Every Day, Working Mother, February 2017
- These companies decided to let employees bring their babies to work every day, MarketWatch, April 2016
- Crib Notes, Babies at Work, Society for Human Rights Management, February 2011
- Maternity-Leave Alternative: Bring the Baby to Work, New York Times, January 2009
- Increasingly, Companies are Okay with Babies at Work, The Grindstone, March 2012
- Bringing Babies To Work Is Good Business, Forbes, June 2013
- Our Employees Bring Babies to Work… and how we make it work, Jennifer Labit, April 2015