When Samie Swinton returned to work this month after taking maternity leave, she brought along a new co-worker — her 3-month-old baby, Elizabeth.
Swinton is one of a group of employees in her office at the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa taking advantage of a newly implemented Infants in the Workplace program, which lets new parents bring their babies to the office until they're 6 months old (or crawling, whichever comes first).
The organization launched the policy in December, after a pregnant employee broached the topic with CEO Beth Shelton.
"In my head I was thinking, 'Uh, no! There's no way this could work, this would be baby mayhem!'" Shelton told TODAY's 3rd hour. "I was imagining crying babies everywhere, because I'm a mother of three and I know it's really difficult to juggle taking care of a baby and doing anything else."
But the more Shelton considered the suggestion, the more she thought it was something they should pursue to help support parents — and particularly mothers — in the workplace. The idea was particularly timely as their office was in the middle of a baby boom; Swinton was one of seven employees out of a staff of 50 to have a baby in a matter of months.
"Within 24 hours, I went from thinking, 'There's no way we can have babies in our workplace,' to 'You guys, we have to do this,'" Shelton said. She started doing research and came across the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, an online resource that helps people design programs around having babies in the workplace.
Shelton drew inspiration from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which has had an Infants in the Workplace program since 1997.
At the NAIC's headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, babies are just a normal fixture of the office landscape — almost 175 infants have joined their parents at work over the years. Employees there told us that having infants around boosts everyone's morale and softens the workplace.
"So many times, we can get into a project and we're working hard — we're really focused on that project," COO Andy Beal said. "And we have a tendency to forget that work-life balance. And when you walk around the corner and you're running against the deadline and you see somebody holding a baby, it's like, 'Oh! OK.' You stop, say hi, sometimes you pat the baby on the back, and you smile. And it puts things back in perspective."
Beal and other executives who have implemented programs to allow infants in the workplace note many benefits to the business, from increased employee retention to recruitment — it's a perk that draws and keeps good people, who are then more loyal to the business, a sentiment Swinton echoed.
"Why would I ever consider, at least right now, wanting to work anywhere else, when I can be — in this new part of my life — so supported and not have to worry about my job?" she said.
Those who have supervised programs allowing infants in the workplace stress that having agreed-upon rules and guidelines is the key to success. Some of these guidelines include creating dedicated quiet spaces for parents to feed, change and comfort babies, and providing answers to common questions like, how long can a baby cry before the parent should remove him or her from a communal working space? (The answer: about five minutes.)
New parents must also name a few alternate care providers — co-workers who can step in and help out when the mom or dad needs a break.
Sam Digmann, the expecting employee who got the ball rolling at Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa, said she is grateful for the program but that she sees it as just a good first step on the way to greater flexibility for working parents. "This is great, but I think it's just a stepping stone," she said. "Honestly, as a country as a whole, we still have a long way to go."
The United States is one of the only developed nations in the world without mandated paid parental leave. While a handful of states have enacted paid parental leave initiatives, most employers' paid leave policies cover only several weeks. The employers we spoke with said that while they wished they could offer longer paid leaves, that wasn't an economically feasible option for their businesses. In allowing new parents to bring in their babies for a few extra months in these Infants in the Workplace programs, the employers were comfortable with reduced productivity from their employees in the short term, in exchange for being able to retain them in the long run.
On Swinton's first day back at work at the Girl Scouts, baby Elizabeth joined her in her cubicle, hung out in a Rock 'n Play while she worked and snoozed in a carrier against her chest during a meeting. Other employees we met had baby swings or travel cribs in their cubicles, or had been outfitted with other accommodations, like a standing desk, to make wearing a baby while working easier.
When the program was initially announced, Swinton had felt unsure she'd participate, not knowing exactly how it would work. But after Elizabeth arrived and her maternity leave started to tick down, she was grateful that she wouldn't have to be separated from her daughter quite yet.
"Each day with her on maternity leave was a little bit different, so I know each day at work is going to be a little bit different with her," she said. "I think just watching her grow and being able to see that, I'm looking forward to the most."
For information on how to create a babies-at-work program, check out the Parenting in the Workplace Institute.