Babies in the office: Who’s been sleeping on my spreadsheet?
IMAGINE working in an office to which you could bring your baby. Not just once – while on maternity leave, for the ceremonial wheel-past so that female colleagues may coo, congratulate and whisk you off to lunch and male colleagues can mutter that you’ve clearly lost your edge – but every day.
Bugaboo by the coat stand, car seat tucked under your desk, a Jellycat menagerie of soft toys piled up by your computer screen and your baby – why, on your lap, of course!
Cradle him in the crook of your arm as you plan your PowerPoint presentations. Dandle her on your lap as you calculate the ARR percentages, fire off emails and – sorry, put the phone on divert, it’s time for a breast feed.
For every woman whose eyes are agleam with pleasure at the prospect of this work-life balance arcadia, there’s another howling and running for the proverbial hills.
Could it work? Should it work? Why on earth would anyone want it to work?
Tonight sees the second and final part of a fascinating BBC Two documentary, Babies in the Office, which records the courageous (or maybe foolhardy) pilot scheme by Addison Lee, Britain’s busiest minicab firm, to allow mothers and fathers to bring their pre-school children to the head office.
Here, at the nerve centre of the £200 million company, staff take 25,000 bookings a day, coordinating the movements of 3,500 cars. But by way of a major first in the UK, managing director Liam Griffin believes that bringing babies into the mix might be just what’s needed to boost morale and loyalty alike.
“It warms the cockles of the heart,” he says, simply. “We’re a family business, run by two families, and we started out very small 35 years ago.
“Since then, we’ve grown to the point where we’re in danger of becoming a very corporate entity, so we strive to create a lighter mood, a more family atmosphere – quite literally – by bringing babies and small children into the workplace.”
The experiment begins with a one-day taster: eight parents and nine babies and toddlers form the first focus group to find out whether there might be mileage in introducing the ultimate family-friendly policy.
To say that the trial caused teething troubles would be an understatement. I can confirm there was crying, hurling of picture books, kicking, sulking and chewing on telephone wires. And the children played up quite a lot, too.
Lord knows how the parents and indeed other staff felt; by the end of the first episode, I was so stressed I had a migraine.
But maybe that was due to flashbacks from my own days spent trying to work from home when my daughter was too tiny to put in nursery but not tiny enough to sleep through important phone calls.
I used to be ashamed of the fact that, once or twice, I resorted to steeling myself and closing the door on her sobs, pretending to the concerned caller that, no, I could not hear a crying baby.
Since then, virtually every mumpreneur I’ve met has ’fessed up to doing the same thing, including the one who used to lock herself in the larder with her mobile while her screaming toddlers hammered on the door.
Fortunately, Addison Lee, whose American equivalent has been successfully running babies-in-the-office schemes for years, had done more forward planning and allocated each parent a “buddy” co-worker to take the baby should the little treasure kick off at an inopportune moment.
There are 170 companies in the US running babies-at-work schemes, but then demand there is higher. As there is no legal right to maternity pay in America, it’s not uncommon for new mothers to return to work just weeks after the birth.
Keeping baby close is about bonding as well as breastfeeding, and also saves on nursery fees, which can run into several thousand a year.
One Addison Lee mother interviewed on the programme revealed that she paid almost £1,000 a month for care. Another had to find £4,500 every year for just two days’ care a week; no wonder that looking after their child during working hours seemed like a dream come true.
Inevitably, the scheme generates goodwill and a huge amount of worker loyalty. Also, the low rates of staff turnover mean big savings on recruitment and training.
Investment fund manager Nicola Horlick, mother of six, who is interviewed for the programme, sees the issue as a no-brainer.
“People make a business, and if you want the best people you need to invest in them,” says Horlick. “That means making sure you offer family-friendly policies.”
This view is echoed by the US Parenting in the Workplace Institute: “Happy babies in the workplace lower stress levels and create feelings of camaraderie and community among co-workers.”
That may be so – but unhappy babies, or bored and fractious babies – are a different matter, as attested in the programme by the rolling eyes of colleagues trying to make themselves heard over the din, or whose working day is unnecessarily prolonged because a parent has spent too long pacifying their child rather than pulling their weight.
One thing that became abundantly clear was that immobile babies are much easier to manage than toddlers, who tend to roam in search of adventure – or mischief.
With an average of 2,000 calls an hour, Addison Lee’s call centre is a high-pressure environment, and when the trial is extended for a month, it becomes evident that productivity has suffered for those bringing baby to work.
The notable exception is heroic multitasker Shallon, a mother of six (yes, six), with the latest addition to her brood snoozing in a baby bouncer by her side, who single-handedly proves the adage, “If you want something done, ask a busy woman.”
But the long-term dividends more than make up for any short-term loss of productivity. Even Tyrone, the macho sales manager, who was a leading sceptic at the outset, relaxes to the point where he (almost) smiles as he watches one of his team singing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes to Tenisha, their pink-clad departmental toddler.
“It changes the vibe when she comes in. She’s like a mini member of the team and everyone has their moment with her,” he says, with gruff reluctance. “Obviously I don’t want it too airy fairy in here, but it’s a nice vibe.”
Yet not everyone agrees that it’s a win-win situation. Quite the contrary. Tamsin Kelly, a mother of three and editor of parenting website Parentdish, says she shudders at the thought.
“Personally, I can’t think of anything more shattering than attempting to get work done while keeping up the pretence of being a perfect mother in front of colleagues,” says Kelly.
“Work and home seep into each other enough once you’re a mother, with posset stains down your back, chew toys in your handbag and having to desert your desk for sports days and parent evenings. Why would you want to blur all lines between work and your children? One of the big bonuses of work is having a teeny amount of time to yourself, even if it is spent grabbing a sandwich at lunchtime.”
According to Kelly, the key constituents of a working parent’s wishlist are childcare that’s affordable, trustworthy and easy to get to, a sympathetic boss and flexitime.
“What’s not top of any parent’s list is turning yourself into a basket case by taking your child to the office all day, and the journey there and back, then starting work again after the tea-bath-bed routine.”
At the end of the second episode of Babies at Work, Griffin reveals what he thinks about the scheme and what staff have fed back via questionnaires. The understanding is that everyone must be on board before the firm continues its pioneering journey into desk-rearing the next generation of babies.
Can working parents only win the battle for affordable childcare by bringing their babies to the front line? Is breastfeeding during office hours a boon or a burden? Do babies in the boardroom represent a heart-warming reminder of what matters most in life or a mewling distraction from the bottom line? Parents and bosses: tune in and judge for yourself.
Babies in the Office, BBC2, 7pm