Babies in the boardroom

It’s ironic that I’m writing this article on Take Your Child to Work Day. Observed on the fourth Thursday of April, this national event was established and funded by the Ms. Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting women’s issues, in 1993. The original observance was actually called Take Your Daughter to Work Day and was intended to give teenage girls exposure to career options that were then considered male-dominated. So as not to be exclusionary, sons were also invited into the office starting in 2003. It is estimated that over 37 million Americans will be participating in this annual event, with millions of schoolchildren boarding buses and trains with Mommy and Daddy and going to work rather than getting on their school buses. But while the business world may have changed drastically over the past few decades, for me it is business as usual as I sit at my desk in my quiet home office, penning an article for AmiLiving while my kids are in school or downstairs with the babysitter.
This calm, professional atmosphere, however, will be short-lived, for in just a few hours the school buses will pull up at my door and deposit my darlings, and I will longingly wave goodbye to the babysitter. I will inevitably end up answering some urgent workrelated phone calls that cannot wait while I’m serving supper, balancing my baby on my lap in front of the computer. I will also probably have to hang up on my boss at least once to tend to a toddler tantrum before things quiet down again. Most of my colleagues are on a first-name basis with my eight-year-old, who loves to fill in as my secretary when I can’t get to the phone in time.

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A baby in the background of a job-related interaction? Not only is this an outgrowth of the technology that can connect employees to the workplace at any time, it’s also a sign of the radical shift that has occurred in the corporate world of late. What was once considered an absolute no-no in the stiff and über-formal culture of business has now become acceptable—and even welcome. It was only a few decades ago that many formerly sacrosanct mores and standards started to relax, and these leniencies eventually seeped into the corporate world. Just look at any black-and-white newspaper image dating from the Eisenhower administration; women wore dresses and gloves (gasp!) on a dash to the grocery, and men wore hats and jackets on the street, regardless of religious affiliation. Most of our grandparents would have been stumped by the term “casual Friday,” a practice in which office workers trade in their suits and ties for T-shirts and sandals once a week. Started in Hawaii in the late 1960s, it became prevalent throughout America during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And nowadays such informality isn’t limited to Fridays; there are plenty of respectable CEOs who don jeans or Dockers every day of the week, reflecting a more open-minded, friendly atmosphere that experts say fosters creativity and productiveness. In fact, Bubbie and Zeidie probably wouldn’t recognize some modern offices as professional environments. There are workplaces today that boast employee amenities such as on-site gyms with rock-climbing walls, photo processing and even laundry service.

At Google headquarters, employees are famously known for getting around the building on motorized scooters and taking breaks in front of video game screens and in Lego play areas. LinkedIn headquarters has a beanbag lounge and foosball tables. And most of these multimillion-dollar businesses are pet-friendly too. I’m not familiar with caring for a dog, but I would imagine that infants are more disruptive in a workplace than a furry pet that actually sits when you tell it to. Even so, bringing small children to work is no longer taboo. According to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides resources and planning guides for implementing child care in the workplace, there are currently at least 140 companies in the US using one of its Babies at Work programs. Scrolling through the institute’s database of “baby-inclusive” organizations, I’m not surprised to find businesses such as a retail shop in Charlottesville that sells wholesome products for “natural parenting.” But it is surprising to learn that many major corporations are jumping on the baby bandwagon. For example, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in Kansas City has 500 employees and is currently welcoming 75 babies into its office space.Parenting in the Workplace was founded by Carla Moquin, who wrote an article on its website called “Can You Bring Your Baby to Work?” In it, she offers anecdotal evidence suggesting that morale improves in offices with babies. Why? That little bundle of joy is also a great icebreaker when it comes to professional relationships. Other employees say that young children are refreshing and add liveliness to an office setting.

A glimpse into a coworker’s family life can also make him or her seem more approachable. (Of course, not everyone is in agreement that this is a positive development. Many people still insist that babies in the workplace are an unwelcome distraction and that it isn’t fair to other employees or to management to bring them in. In fact, many experts on work–life balance view toting a child to work as evidence of a dangerous blurring of the lines between employment and family life. And many employees don’t want to have their babies nearby when they’re working, preferring to keep the two spheres separate.) But it isn’t only in big businesses that the culture has changed. According to the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, 9.6 million schoolage children—a full 37 percent—whose mothers work in smaller businesses have no regular child-care arrangements and end up tagging along. A recent New York Times article describes some creative solutions being utilized by young professionals in New York City who like the idea of working with their children underfoot. One interviewee, the owner of a small public relations firm, outfitted her office space with a tepee, chalkboards, coloring books and an iPad for employees’ children. Arrangements like these, she explained, aren’t subject to the licensing requirements of day-care centers because the children are present only occasionally rather than for a fixed number of hours. Another interviewee said she found it comforting to have her children nearby, especially during those times of the year when her work schedule is very intense. And that is really the point. Child accommodations are just one of an increasing number of employee perks like treadmill desks, free snacks and in-office yoga classes. The ultimate goal of this trend is employee satisfaction—because a happy employee is a productive one too.

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