Mixing babies and the workplace

WORK IT BABY: Do you think your baby could slip into your work life easily?
WORK IT BABY: Do you think your baby could slip into your work life easily?

Mixing babies and business sound like a recipe for chaos, but one British firm has been able to make it work for more than a year.

Addison Lee, Europe's largest minicab and chauffeur company, has been trialling having pre- schoolers at its Euston Office (home to 900 staff) in London after they were alerted to the idea by a BBC documentary team.

A scheme that works successfully in about 170 American companies, it eschews onsite creches and nurseries in favour of having children right beside their parents' desks.

Addison Lee head of human resources Claire Mitchell says while the idea initially sounded "absolutely crazy", she and her fellow bosses were intrigued by the potential if it proved successful.

"Somebody's productivity might be lower for a year but what counteracts that is you gain their loyalty for 10."

After a year of discussions and planning, they asked all their employees who would like to take part in a trial involving kids under the age of five - nine put their hands up. "We soon found out that we had to lower that age limit. Those over 1 year were just too mobile." A creche is planned to cater for those children, she says.

The other issue they discovered was with the "buddy system" where a fellow worker was enlisted to help out with child care duties. "At first it was a problem, we basically had two people looking after one baby," says Mitchell. "But now we've made it very clear that they are not a co-carer, just a backup for the odd occasion, like when the parent has to nip off to the toilet.

However, despite some initial resistance from a few employees, Mitchell says virtually everyone's experience of the scheme has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I think a lot of our staff have either had children themselves or want to have children in the future. We have a system in place where if a member of staff is finding it distracting or annoying, they can confidentially come and talk to us in HR. We've also made it very clear that if a child does become a nuisance they won't be able to come in any longer. But so far we haven't had any problems.

"I think it comes down to the parents, children are very adaptable."

While most of those involved in the trial have been mothers, there are a couple of dads, Mitchell says.

"At first they found it harder to get into a routine, but I actually think they've found it more rewarding. One of the guys missed out on the early years of his two older children and has been really relishing having time with his daughter that he wouldn't normally have got."

With maternity leave in Britain limited to 90 per cent of full pay for six weeks and about £80 (NZ$155) a week for a further 7-and-a-half months, as well as childcare costs rising by a third in the past four years, Mitchell says this scheme could not have come at a better time.

She believes it has already had an effect by persuading some staff that they could start, or extend, families.

"I know that some of my team had been holding off having a second child because they didn't think they could afford it, which is so sad. But now, it feels like there are more pregnant people at work and people are talking about having families."

As well as fielding interest from quite a few curious companies keen to see how the scheme works, Mitchell herself is preparing to put it to the test when she returns from maternity leave next year.

"I don't see why most companies can't at least give it a trial. The most important thing is to have very open lines of communication with the parents and all the other staff. If you're going to trial it, it has got to be a fair trial and the only way you are going to know that is if you're getting good feedback from everybody involved."

- Babies in the Office screens on Vibe on December 9 at 7.30pm.

The Press