Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Handling the Office Baby Boom

A growing number of employers are facing boomlets in office fertility. The proportion of pregnant women who are in the labor force has been edging higher for most of the past three decades, and trend may be accelerating: 61% of expectant or new mothers were in the labor force in 2008, up from 56% to 57% in the preceding three years, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. For employers, that brings an array of challenges-from scheduling and planning around doctor appointments, childbirth and parental leave, to enlisting co-workers to step up and fill in for new parents.

Indeed, many companies don't handle pregnancy all that well. Women complain about being laid off shortly after they reveal their pregnancies, or being written off for promotions or demoted. Federal data suggest many expectant mothers encounter problems at work: a near-record 6,196 pregnancy-discrimination complaints were filed last year, up 11% from 5,587 in 2007 and just slightly below 2008's record high of 6,285, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says.

Some companies, though, are finding benefits from managing expectant employees. The nimbleness required to handle the multiple pregnancies in the short term, these businesses say, can give rise to cross-training and teamwork that deepen their bench of talent in the long term. Companies that deliberately try to retain new parents, through flexibility, child-care help or babies-at-work programs, say the policies lure women back early from maternity leave, foster loyalty and heighten their allure to skilled recruits.

Of course, getting hired at a company where a significant minority of your co-workers are pregnant can feel, for non-parents, like landing on a strange planet. When Josh Ashline, a single man in his twenties, was hired at Zutano, he was promptly invited to an office baby shower—his first. He had to ask his boss for help picking out a gift, says Mr. Ashline, who is 29. "It was a little strange."

Among other quirks, long lines form at the women's room, causing "extra delays with our pregnant crew," Mr. Belenky says. Office chatter centers on nutrition, sleep and doctor visits.

Multiple co-worker pregnancies can be a challenge for everyone. Coordinating staff meetings when all five participants "all have a doctor's appointment some time in the next three days can be difficult," says Denise Towne, Zutano's production manager. And even with all of Zutano's careful planning, nature doesn't always cooperate; some babies arrived early, while other expectant moms continued to trudge in to work every day well after their due dates.

When Ms. Towne's production assistant, Amber Finn, took maternity leave, Ms. Towne farmed parts of her job to other employees. One, a customer-service worker, learned production-reporting skills that later earned her a promotion, Ms. Towne says. All the cross-training "makes everyone more valuable."

Asking co-workers to fill in during others' leaves or doctor appointments can cause overload or resentment. Some employers hire temps to fill the gap, but most handle maternity leave like vacations or other kinds of disability leave, parceling out pieces of the absent worker's job to co-workers, re-assigning projects or putting them on hold. In the best cases, employees reciprocate by planning carefully for their absences, repaying co-workers for pinch-hitting, and making up missed work time whenever possible.

Focusing on objectives over face time and fostering good communication among co-workers have helped Words & Numbers weather its baby boom, Mr. Evans says. The company subsidizes an on-site child-care center; its toddler room is visible from a conference room through floor-to-ceiling windows, keeping family issues constantly on the radar screen.

Asked if his company is on a calendar year for financial-reporting purposes, Mr. Evans replies with a laugh, "We're on trimesters."

Borshoff, an Indianapolis marketing, communications and advertising agency that has had several waves of multiple pregnancies among its 42 employees, allows new moms or dads to bring infants to work for up to six months, says Susan Matthews, a principal in the firm. Participants take a temporary cut to 80% of full pay, on the assumption that infant care will distract them. New parents who work in an open area are given temporary offices if needed. And Borshoff sets ground rules for terminating babies-at-work setups if they disrupt the workplace.

Such policies are cheaper than offering a child-care center and, if set up properly, sharply reduce hurdles to new mothers' return-to-work, says Carla Moquin, president of Parents in the Workplace, Salt Lake City, a nonprofit advocacy and resource organization. Ms. Moquin, who keeps a database on the subject, says she knows of 150 U.S. employers that have babies-at-work programs.

Zutano is among them. Ms. Finn says knowing she could bring her baby to work contributed to her decision to return just six weeks after childbirth.

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