"You could hear a pin drop," Klee says. The silence was quickly followed by a chorus of objections. "There was concern that it wasn’t appropriate, that it would disrupt work. And of course, what happens if a baby gets hurt?"
But Klee spent the next few months ironing out these issues. In August, the Franklin, Tennessee-based online provider of insurance quotes launched its Babies in the Workplace program.
Under the program, parents can bring their newborns to work for the first eight months or until the baby starts to crawl, whichever comes first.
HometownQuotes is one of growing number of employers offering "babies to work" programs, according to Carla Moquin, founder and president of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, which provides employers with resources to set up such programs. Despite only having 115 employers registered with the institute, there has been increasing interest in the idea the past few months, Moquin says.
In the last 18 months, 10 employers have launched these programs. The idea is catching on for many reasons, Moquin says.
First, many employers are now hearing about such programs through the media, and they recognize it’s an inexpensive way to attract and retain talent, she says.
But given the economic downturn, many employers are realizing they won’t be able to give raises. At the same time, employees complain about the cost of day care, she says.
"Morale and productivity is a big issue right now," Moquin says. "This is a benefit that doesn’t cost the company a thing."
For small companies like HometownQuotes, which has 34 employees, offering a babies-to-work program helps reinforce its family-like culture, Klee says.
"We are always saying that we care about our employees," he says. "This shows that."
The business case
Companies that have been offering babies-to-work program for years, such as the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, say the business case is evident in employee loyalty and productivity.
The Kansas City, Missouri-based nonprofit group, which supports the 50 state insurance commissioners, often competes with large private employers for talent. But it can’t offer the same kind of compensation private companies offer, says Andrew Beal, active executive vice president and CEO of the organization, which has 427 employees.
"So we try to compete by making the company more employee-friendly," he says.
In 1998, the NAIC launched its Infants in the Workplace program. Under the program, new parents can bring newborns to work for the first six months.
Beal concedes that parents who participate in the program are probably not as productive as average employees.
"Productivity is probably at 70 to 80 percent of the norm," he says. But NAIC has found that new moms come back to work quicker—usually after eight weeks, compared with 12 weeks previously. New moms at NAIC get four weeks’ paid maternity leave.
NAIC also has seen parents in the program stay with the organization longer. Since the beginning of 2006, 27 parents have participated in the program and only three have left the organization—a retention rate of 90 percent for participants.
And lost productivity during the day is often made up by longer hours, executives say.
"Our employees taking advantage of this program are working 10-hour days sometimes," Klee says. "And I guarantee that if the baby wasn’t here, she wouldn’t be doing that."
Denise Towne, production manager at Zutano, a Cabot, Vermont-based baby clothing company, says her ability to bring her babies to work has helped tremendously in working longer hours. Towne, who six years ago became the first Zutano employee to bring a baby to work with her son Patrick, is now doing so with her third child, 5-month-old Morgan.
"You definitely lose a bit of productivity, but on the other hand I didn’t need to rush out at 5 o’clock to pick her up at day care," she says.
Under Zutano’s program, the company’s 35 employees can bring newborns to work for the first year. The only requirement is that employees have to have been with the company for at least 12 months and work in a safe environment, says Michael Belenky, founder and president of the company. Employees manning heavy machinery at the company’s distribution center, for example, can’t bring babies to work.
For the past four years, Zutano estimates that employees who have participated in the program have stayed with the company an average of seven years, compared with four years for employees overall.
"If we look at everything we do, whether it is our bonuses or 401(k) plan, this is certainly the most cherished benefit we offer," Belenky says.
Devil in the details
As HometownQuotes’ Klee learned early on, the trickiest part about offering a babies-to-work program is establishing the policy around it that addresses everyone’s concerns. "The biggest problem was insurance," Klee says. But eventually he got the underwriters to sign on.
Employees who want to take advantage of the program meet with their supervisor and have to assign two other employees to be caregivers when they have meetings. These employees have to sign liability agreements.
Since the program just started in August, HometownQuotes has only had one employee take advantage of the program, so far without any issues.
For larger employers, having policies and procedures in place around these programs is essential.
Arizona’s Department of Health Services in Phoenix for the past eight years has allowed its new moms to bring their babies to work if they are nursing. But in October 2007, the Phoenix-based agency expanded the program to include all new parents, says Carol Vack, local health liaison with the division.
The agency has 2,000 employees, of which 700 aren’t eligible for the program because they work in the state laboratory and mental hospital, where it isn’t safe to bring babies, Vack says.
The agency has two coordinators for its infant program, says Vack, who is one of the coordinators. Employees who want to take advantage of the benefit meet with their supervisors and a coordinator to discuss expectations and common courtesies, she says.
"We have these discussions before the parent brings the baby to work so that everything is clear," Vack says.
One of the potential challenges at the agency is that many employees work in cubicles, so participants in the program often just set up a crib.
But Vack says the fact that these babies are out in the open hasn’t been an issue. If employees have grievances, they can go to the infant coordinator or to their supervisors, but there have been very few issues, she says.
There was one instance where an employee requested to be moved because she was having fertility problems and had a hard time being next to a baby, Vack says. "But after the baby left, she returned to her old spot and it was fine," she says. The mother and neighbor had talked about the issue, so there were no longstanding problems, she says.
Having a venue for employees to anonymously air their grievances is essential with these programs, Moquin says. "But I have not spoken to one company that had people making formal complaints," she says. "We only had one issue where a co-worker was spending too much time playing with the baby."
Despite the notion that having babies in the workplace would cause a huge disruption, employers say that the babies generally sleep all day.
"For the first few days that our employee brought her son, everyone was crowding around him and so on," Klee says. "But then it was really business as usual."
And companies always reserve the right to cancel the program if it’s not working, executives say.
Still, observers doubt this trend will go mainstream.
"This is a practice that is limited in application because it has pros and cons that need to be carefully matched to the specific workplace culture and demographics," says Kathie Lingle, executive director at WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress in Scottsdale, Arizona.