Winslow Carbert focused intently as she walked through the open, sun-lit, second-floor Village Books office. She looked from the file cabnets and shelves on her right to cubbies filled with posters and printer paper on her left. Still not finding what she was looking for, she continued on, then stopped, turned around, looked up and began panting like a dog.
Winslow’s behavior isn’t at all out of character. She usually communicates with a combination of body and sign language, and for a 1-year-old, she does so with impressive effectiveness.
“The dogs aren’t here today,” said Kelly Carbert, responding to the panting.
Winslow has been a fairly regular fixture in the Village Books office since Kelly, her mother, returned to work after Winslow’s birth.
It’s unusual to see children in most offices in Bellingham, but Village Books has a pretty open policy for office employees who want to bring children in with them.
At least 140 U.S. organizations and businesses “have successfully allowed babies in the workplace,” according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute.
That number undoubtably understates the actual number of baby-friendly businesses and organizations, though. It excludes some of our very own, including Village Books, Western Washington University and Sustainable Connections.
Benefits for employers
Allowing parents to bring their children to work isn’t just good for moms and dads, it’s also good for the workplace, according to a 2005 study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science called “Parenting in the Workplace: Child Care Options for Consideration.”
The study found that in workplaces where employees were allowed to bring children to work and personally care for them, there was “more regard for workplace innovation and collegial relationships, and more positive attitudes toward work-family integration.” Those employers also reported no disadvantage in business outcomes.
Chuck Robinson, who owns Village Books with his wife, Dee sees more benefits than disadvantages to letting children accompany parents to work at Village Books. In fact, in the 30 years children have joined their parents at work there, he hasn’t seen any disadvantages he said.
“I just don’t know of any things that have been big negatives from it,” Robinson said.
And one big positive, he said, is that some parents who might otherwise have to leave early or stay home with a child can actually keep working ― it gives them flexibility.
Giving parent employees flexibility in any form helps reduce absenteeism and tardiness, and even reduces turnover, said Kristi Lewis Tyran, associate professor of management at Western Washington University’s College of Business and Economics. And all of that can boost productivity.
“Sustainable Connections started like many small businesses. The two founding members were two parents. Our daughter was in the office. There was no choice in the matter.” Derek Long, Sustainable Connections executive director
That’s especially true for small business owners, whose best and sometimes only option for being productive is to take their children to work with them.
While Derek and Michelle Long were establishing Sustainable Connections, they were also adjusting to parenthood. Their daughter, Hadley, joined them at the office nearly everyday until she was a year old, Derek Long said.
“Sustainable Connections started like many small businesses,” he said. “The two founding members were two parents. Our daughter was in the office. There was no choice in the matter.”
As Sustainable Connections has developed and grown, the Long’s family-friendly policy has remained. Three children, including Hadley, study, read and sleep in the Sustainable Connections’ office on a weekly basis.
The most frequent underage visitor is Tate, who is about 6 months old and spends 10 to 12 hours per week with his mother in the office. One might think a 6-month-old would be loud and disruptive in an office environment, but that is not the case, Long said.
Sustainable Connections employees will take breaks to pick Tate up or walk him around the office, and studies show that frequent, short breaks can increase productivity, Long said.
“A lot of our staff are focused and driven people and probably it’s healthy for them to have an excuse to look away from their computer screens for a while,” he said.
Allowing children in the office also helps build a sense of camaraderie among employees in the office, Long said. People work better as a team and the nonprofit can more easily retain employees when team members know each other on a more personal level.
It also shows respect for parents and, Long said, employees appreciate employers who give support and demonstrate loyalty throughout life stages.
“I just think it’s grounding to see professionals working through different stages of their lives,” Long said.
And it’s not just employees who benefit from the policy. Long tries to make meetings with Sustainable Connections members accessible to working parents, too, he said. The nonprofit even sets up a ping pong table to keep children, and often adults, entertained. That boosts meeting attendance, and gives parent business owners a break.
“This is the age we live in with oftentimes two professionals in the family and kids to manage,” Long said.
Witnessing the firsts
Carbert sat at her Village Books desk with Winslow on her lap. Winslow made a few happy, incomprehensible noises, then counted to three. Carbert’s brows and the sides of her mouth raised slightly as she looked down at her daughter. Before that moment, she had only ever heard Winslow make it to two, she said.
It’s moments like this Carbert might miss if Winslow didn’t go with her to work, Carbert said.
Tyran, from Western, also takes her daughter to work with her, and has been since she was a baby. The quality of time she spends with her daughter while she’s working may not be as good, but it nonetheless allows the two to bond and get to know each other better than they would if they were miles apart, Tyran said.
“When I was young, there’s no way I would have gone to work with my father and so I never really knew what he did,” Tyran said.
Most research on the subject of parent employees looks at the broader issue of striking a family-work balance, Tyran said. Allowing children to sit in their parents’ work stations on a regular basis is one way to accomplish that balance, but employers who want to give employees more flexibility have other options. There are a variety of ways for employers to support parent employees, she said.
Tyran considers herself lucky to work for the university, which is one of only a few employers in Bellingham to provide on-site child care. Once her daughter was old enough, Tyran enrolled her in the university’s child care program. Tyran didn’t have to travel far to see her daughter splashing around in the university’s recreation center swimming pool or to simply check in with her.
“She just discovered the copy machine and all the drawers and it was cute for a minute.” Kelly Carbert, Village Books
A lot of businesses and organizations can’t afford to offer on-site child care, but many can allow for flexible schedules, or do things as simple as setting aside an area for women who are breast feeding, Tyran said.
Another option is making working from home feasible. At Sustainable Connections, the computer server was updated so employees can access it from their houses. Employees are still expected to respect regular work days, Long said, but the server gives them the opportunity to work when they are most productive — and that may be when their children are in bed.
ABCs of in-office parenting
Parenting and working at the same time isn’t easy and can be distracting for parents and their coworkers. That’s why early and honest communication is essential for in-office parenting, Long said.
One key for parenting in the workplace is providing children with distractions, such as toys, crayons and books, and making sure there are rooms where they can go if they are particularly riled up. Another helpful hint is to consider children’s ages. When children aren’t yet mobile, they are easy to control in an office environment, Long said. The same holds true for children who are old enough to entertain themselves with books or art projects.
“I do wonder about the 2, 3, and 4 age range, if that would be extra challenging,” Long said.
Even though the Robinson’s are open to having children in their Village Books office, Winslow hasn’t been going to work with her mother as often lately. Winslow’s a little too mobile at this point, Carbert said.
“She just discovered the copy machine and all the drawers and it was cute for a minute,” Carbert said.
Village Books’ office may be a good environment for workplace parenting, but just downstairs, at the registers, a child running around could be incredibly distracting, Robinson said.
Obviously allowing children in all workplaces would be inappropriate and potentially catastrophic. When the environment is right, though, Robinson said, having children around can be a positive experience and Winslow is a good example of that.
“It’s tough not to smile when she comes in,” Robinson said. “I think it kind of perks up people’s attitudes.”