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When Marissa VanHoozer went back to work eight weeks after giving birth, her newborn son was right at her side.
Gavin slept in a bassinet on her office desk as she made phone calls, slumbered in a baby sling on her body as she typed on her computer or just watched the executive assistant in action at the Washington State Department of Health in Olympia.
The agency announced last week that it is one of a growing number of organizations implementing an “Infants at Work Policy,” allowing new moms or dads to bring their infants to the office and care for them on the job.
Parents like VanHoozer, who was eager to spend as much time as possible with her baby but worried about the loss of income during her maternity leave, see it as the perfect solution.
Some coworkers might see it as a nightmare, but with clear guidelines in place about babies that are crying or otherwise disruptive, VanHoozer said her office mates were enthusiastic, too.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think I had a single complaint during the entire time that Gavin was here,” VanHoozer, 28, told TODAY Parents, noting many of her colleagues bonded with the baby.
“Instead of calling them coworkers, they’ve just become Gavin’s aunties and uncles.”
Some 200 companies and organizations in the U.S. now have a “babies at work” policy, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute.
Founded in 2007 by Carla Moquin — a Salt Lake City, Utah, mom who was frustrated by the lack of options when she had to go back to work four weeks after giving birth — the institute is seeing a major increase in employers looking into and setting up the programs, she said.
“We would love to see this take off in most organizations because it does work,” Moquin told TODAY. “It could help so many more families than people realize.”
Most people are skeptical at first, she admitted. For the program to work, she recommends companies adopt specific rules to address common concerns:
Babies cannot be disruptive: Parents must respond very quickly to the first sound of distress from the baby. VanHoozer’s son was mostly content and happy, but any time he’d start fussing, she was able to take care of his needs immediately, she said.
The program is limited to babies who can’t yet crawl: The Washington State Department of Health policy allows only infants from 6 weeks to 6 months old.
Everybody still needs to get their work done: Productivity does go down for an employee who is taking care of a baby at work, but he or she will make up for it, Moquin said. “Parents are so grateful for the opportunity to have their baby with them that they work really hard to make sure the critical tasks are completed; they stay late if they need to,” she noted.
Parents need to pre-plan for back-up care: Typically, at least two coworkers volunteer to be available if the parent needs to go to a meeting or otherwise be away from the baby. VanHoozer found a colleague who acted as a “co-parent.”
There should be a baby-free zone in place: This should be a part of the office far away from the new parent where people who are bothered by the baby’s presence could request to sit.
“It’s rare that people need that,” Moquin said. “In practice, what ends up happening is skeptics become supporters.”
Workplace experts aren’t so sure. Any policy that helps working moms or dads is a positive, but allowing babies in the office could impact the morale and productivity of the other employees, said Bob Kelleher, CEO of The Employee Engagement Group.
He noted managers must consider issues such as: What is being done to ensure that the employees who don’t have their children at work aren’t being asked to do above and beyond? People become disengaged when there is a perception of unfairness, Kelleher said.
Then, there’s the issue of distraction as people work in cubicles and open offices.
“If I’m working side by side with you and you have a child, and the child starts crying and you have to stand up and take the child someplace else, that’s going to disrupt my flow at that moment,” Kelleher said.
He believes a select few companies will offer this perk as a way to retain employees.
“In the right organization, in the right culture, it can be a very positive tool,” Kelleher said.