Offices can be noisy places, as colleagues make phone calls, talk through new ideas, or chuckle as they chat about their latest weekend exploits.

But recently, in some workplaces, those sounds have been joined by a baby’s gurgling laughter, or a father’s words of comfort to a momentarily cranky infant.

About 200 companies nationwide now offer programs that allow employees to take their babies to work. It’s a perk that may seem unusual, but it’s also proving popular with many new mothers and fathers.

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, one company that has embraced this policy is W.S. Badger Co., an organic skin-care business in Gilsum, N.H.

Badger has allowed parents to bring their babies to work for almost a decade. Moms and dads are allowed to have their little ones in their workspaces until the children are 6 months old or start to crawl, whichever comes first. Parents are responsible for making sure their babies are safe while they are at work, and they have to do everything they can to minimize disruption when the little gal or fella gets fussy.

“Parents can set up play mats on their cubicle floors, strap on their Baby Bjorns for meetings, and take time throughout the day to feed and care for their children,” the Globe article said. “Should they need to attend a meeting or make a client call, parents can turn to designated helpers. The company pays these parents for six hours of work each day, instead of the typical eight, with the understanding that tending to an infant can be a bit of a distraction.”

But company executives say allowing babies at work has proved more beneficial than distracting. That’s a common reaction to such policies, according to Carla Moquin, founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, which helps companies create family-friendly policies.

“People end up bonding with the baby in the first few weeks, and it changes the whole dynamic of the organization,” Moquin said in the Globe article. “The employees don’t want the baby to leave.”

According to Badger’s website, an organization needs to have clear policies in place to make this program work. But once it is set up, both the company and the employee can benefit.

“For the parent and child, the benefits include making breastfeeding easier and allowing for the inherent health benefits for both mother and child, enhanced bonding, lessening of daycare costs and more financial stability, great social network and extended-family support for both parent and child, and an easier transition in to off-site child care,” the company’s website says. “The benefits for Badger include having the mother back to work sooner (not needing to hire temps), morale-boosting, solidified employee commitment, and creating a whole new style of teamwork for the company.”

While it sounds like a win-win situation for both businesses and workers, “babies at work” plans do raise some questions. For example, will the proliferation of this kind of perk make it easier for political and business leaders to ignore the growing clamor for paid parental leave? Is it really fair to pay parents for six hours instead of eight, while some colleagues may waste two hours of every workday on Facebook? And couldn’t some of the need for these kinds of policies be alleviated by approving more flexible work options, like telecommuting?

Companies that institute policies allowing babies at work acknowledge the benefits they gain from the arrangement. For example, a recent MarketWatch article said it “is generally far less costly to institute than something like on-site daycare, and it may get employees back to work faster.”

That said, for businesses that don’t lend themselves to telecommuting, it may be a good alternative form of flex. Such was the case for Schools Financial Credit Union, according to a recent USA Today article. “Other companies with generous benefits allow new parents to work from home for a period of time, or help moms and dads create flexible schedules,” the article said. “However, Schools Financial Credit Union is a financial institution dealing with sensitive information, so working from home is not an option.”

While this flex trend is not growing rapidly, it does appear to be gaining traction in some areas. As such, it’s worth paying attention to the ramifications as more babies giggle and coo their way into the hearts of office workers nationwide.

Have you worked at a company that allowed babies in the office? Was it a distraction, or a benefit? What policies would you suggest to handle such situations? Would companies be better off focusing on helping parents in other ways, instead? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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