Imagine an office where toddlers clamber onto knees during management meetings, toys litter the carpet and it’s fine to bottle-feed whilst on an important phone call. Does it sound like professional heaven, or the very definition of hell?
The idea of bringing your baby to work may seem crazy, but in the USA, the emerging babies at work movement argues that it’s a practical alternative to childcare for parents who aren’t yet ready to leave their infants, but need to work to earn a living.
And even this side of the Atlantic, it’s not as rare as you might think. Girls’ school headmistress Dr Helen Wright hit the headlines getting back to her desk – with her baby daughter – just seven hours after giving birth. Even Victoria Beckham has installed a playmat at her design studio so daughter Harper can spend time there.
But could bringing baby to the office ever work for ordinary parents – and their colleagues? A bold experiment in one British firm, captured on film for a new documentary, looks set to find out.
When Liam Griffin, managing director of cab firm Addison Lee, announced that he wanted to try letting some parents bring babies into his company’s London headquarters, staff were sceptical. “There were two camps: mothers were very enthusiastic about it, and those people without kids were massively unenthusiastic,” recalls Griffin. “But whichever camp you were in, the initial reaction was ‘surely this can’t work’”.
There were also surreal moments. “We had a management meeting with 25 managers round the desk and two babies in. At one point, one baby crawled across the table, grabbed the agenda and scrumpled it up,” says Griffin. The team learned that a sleeping infant is one thing, but a rampaging toddler quite another – one reason that American babies at work “retire” at 12 months.
But Clare Mitchell, the firm’s head of HR, says it quickly became normal to find “kids everywhere, toys on the carpets and kids in meetings” – alongside nappy-changing rooms on each floor, and safety padding on desk corners. Far from triggering resentment, the Addison Lee team say if anything, the eight children softened the mood, creating a feel-good factor that spread well beyond the parents. “We are doing 23,000 jobs an hour here and it’s manic. But all of a sudden it just became calm.” More practically, the scheme was a lifesaver for staff struggling with nursery fees of up to 80 a day – or forced into painful choices by the cost of childcare.
“One girl wants to have a second child, but can’t afford to,” says Mitchell. “If we could help her, she’s going to be so loyal to us as a business.”
While in the US taking babies to work is seen as a solution to painfully short maternity leave – American mothers get only three months, often unpaid, compared to nine months’ paid leave here – nursery bills may be a bigger incentive for British parents. Griffin, whose own wife is a fulltime mother, believes firmly that “the parental influence on a child at a young age is critical”. The mothers are multi-tasking, he says, but so are mothers at home doing housework or looking after older children with a baby in tow.
But critics argue that infants in an office miss out on the free-range play and stimulation vital for early learning. “There’s not a lot of interaction, and possibly quite a noisy environment,” says Jill Rutter, research manager at the childcare charity Daycare Trust. “A high-quality childminder or nursery is a far better prospect in relation to child development. And whether or not it suits babies, it’s no soft option for parents.”
Shellon Beckford (left), who works as part of the team taking phone bookings at Addison Lee, came back early from maternity leave to join the trial with her then three-month-old daughter Madhka, the youngest of her six children. Beckford is the star of the trial, somehow managing to hit the same performance targets as before, and her daughter has melted the hardest hearts. “I did feel pressure to make sure I don’t disturb my colleagues, to make sure I do my work, and that she’s not suffering,” says Beckford.
It takes a resourceful parent and tolerant boss to make a success of bringing babies in the office. But if nothing else, this British experiment should shake up the debate over working parenthood – and set some serious arguments raging at the watercooler.
Babies in the Office is on Monday and Tuesday at 7:00pm on BBC2
Gaby Hinsliff is the author of Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)