Is it time for employers to allow new parents to bring their baby to work?

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Would you take your baby to work if you could?

That's what parents in some areas of the US can now do, after New Hampshire became the fifth state to allow parents who work for government agencies and departments to bring their babies to work from the ages of six weeks to six months.

Any worker who wants to opt in needs authorisation from their human resources department and an "individualised plan" for the infant.

And, as long as there are no safety hazards, and the infant causes "limited disruptions" in the workplace, the employee is then free to bring in their baby until they are aged six months, after which time they will need to have new arrangements in place. 

"This initiative can provide working families with options to give their kids the healthiest possible start to life while allowing them to remain in the workforce if they choose to do so," said New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, adding that he hopes the policy helps to attract millennials to work in state departments.

An extension of flexibility

Keeping team members engaged with the business and connected to their colleagues should be a key priority for all businesses, says Kateena Mills, people and culture consultant at Club Sandwich Consulting, and she says this shouldn't be any different for new parents. 

"With child care or not wanting to be separate from their new baby as barriers for parents returning work or staying connected to the culture, it makes sense to consider allowing babies in the workplace as an option," she says.

Mills points out that government agency Fair Work already provides for 'keeping in touch days' as an option for parents to work up to 10 days during their parental leave period. 

"I see this as an extension of that scheme," she says.

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"Offering this kind of flexibility will likely result in increased productivity from the individual, and the team who feel supported by their employer. This is likely also to be an attractive benefit in talent attraction and retention with many younger employees expecting flexibility from their employers in a variety of ways."

Of course, the scheme wouldn't always be smooth sailing, with the demands of new parenthood and the requirements of the business being hard to predict.

"No one really knows in advance how the experience will change their life, routine and priorities," says Mills. "I see one of the biggest challenges as being able to plan in advance how the arrangement would work for the family, as well as for the business. 

"This makes it difficult to ensure appropriate resourcing when deciding if a replacement employee is hired or seconded to backfill the role, or other plans are made to cover the role if it is expected to be for a shorter timeframe."

Potential drawbacks

Mills points out that babies can also be a distraction.

"The possibility of distraction from having a baby in the office is clearly another possible drawback, as again babies are unpredictable, and sometimes quite noisy!" she says. 

"The business and team need to be open to making it work and realistic about the impacts. Having quiet areas where the baby can feed (which is already a requirement) and sleep, and also considering the workplace layout to how the least disruption may be caused can all help make the new arrangement a success."

Mills says keeping new parents in touch with the team is important for businesses if they want to help new parents return to work as seamlessly as possible.

"Whether this is through keeping in touch days or early return to work with baby in tow," she says, it all helps. "By ensuring new parents are included in training and change management initiatives, they can hit the ground running when they do return."

"I think the most important thing for businesses to do is to understand that family comes first and accept a flexible mindset. By offering flexible working opportunities productivity doesn't need to be lost, but the work may not happen in the same way it did before."

Divided opinions

But how would bringing a baby to work affect others? Office workers I asked were divided on the subject.

Lawyer Robyna said, "I think it's a wonderful idea. At that age, babies sleep a lot, are extremely portable and stay put. If you're going to have any age of child in the workplace, newborn is the way to go. And what joy to have in the office!"

Mandy, a former lawyer who now runs a small business from her home, said, "My first instinct is it would be too disruptive to everyone else, but maybe it wouldn't. I think it's actually a great strategic way to get more mums returning to the workforce, because going 'cold turkey' when they're 6-12 months is sooooo soul-destroying and many make the decision to not return at that point."

Jennifer, a consultant who works across a variety of workplaces, points out that a baby in the workplace could be challenging for others, "I can see the benefits for the mother and child but how hard would it be on the people who can't have children, have lost children, etc. I think there a better flexible work options if child care is difficult or not available.

"If you have lost a child or can't have children is there is a real emotional labour with managing your responses in the presence of the really young ones."

Gillian, a marketing director, says that as a mum, she wasn't in the right headspace to be at work in the early days. 
"As a colleague there's no way I want a baby crying and pooing next to me. I would feel awful for the poor frazzled mum trying to multitask", she says. "Let's just have decent paid parental leave."

That's a point with which office worker Claire agrees. "[How about] properly paid parental leave for 12 months for both parents, with the bonus that all the evidence from Scandinavia shows this has strong positive outcomes, unlike the US with the worst maternal health outcomes in the developed world."

It's clear the stresses on Australian parents returning to work need to be addressed, and more support is needed. But whether we follow the US model of valuing the return to work or the Scandinavian model of valuing time at home, change is definitely needed.