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Nanette Fondas's picture

The volcanic national debate about women, work, and family erupts weekly these days, with Sheryl Sandberg’s much-anticipated book, Lean In, published yesterday, the news last week that Best Buy ended its flexible work-from-home ROWE initiative, and Marissa Mayer’s ban on remote working at Yahoo! the week before.

The Mayer memo said Yahoo! needs workers side-by-side to foster creativity, innovation, and effectiveness -- despite its stature as an Internet path breaker. Emotions ran high, fueled by a passion for working flexibility many Silicon Valley workers feel. Parents, in particular, prize flexibility in times of child care snafus -- for example, when schools have a snow day, half-day, or send your little love bundles home with head lice. Beyond parents, though, more than ever, employees crave any type of workflex: One in three says being able to flexibly balance work and life is the most important factor in choosing a job. Workers of all ages and ranks -- even Fortune 500 executives -- say they want MORE flexibility and will forgo pay for it. And let’s not forget the working class in this debate: low-wage workers are 30 percent less likely to quit their jobs within two years if they have some flexibility.

On one side of the debate stand proponents of the well-established business case for giving workers some flexibility in where and how they work. An entire field of study—organizational-behavior examines how a virtuous cycle forms when employers trust and empower employees to do their jobs. Trust-based management practices energize employees, which translates into more and better end products and ultimately productivity improvement. When employees have some discretion, they also feel more job satisfaction and commitment to their organizations, which reduces turnover costs. Productivity up, costs down, bottom line improves.

On the other side of the debate sit realists reminding us that Yahoo! and Best Buy’s businesses are in trouble, hence, “when a ship is going down, it is not unreasonable to demand all hands on deck.” Failing companies cannot invest more in what’s not working. While workflex options attract and retain top talent, some product development (and other organizational) processes require forms of collaboration that benefit from -- if not depend on -- in-person, face-to-face contact.

When a company aims to renew its culture, management must alter any practices impeding performance -- even beloved family-friendly flexibility.

Still others object that Marissa Mayer plays by different rules than the workforce upon which her success depends because she takes her baby to work. Her financial and managerial clout empowered her to customize her childcare situation with an option other mothers can only envy: she built a private nursery next to her office.

There is a way, however, for parents who are not millionaire chief executives to take their babies to work -- and I’m not talking about on-site day care centers. Babies-at-work programs are springing up around the country -- and in Canada, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, too -- in companies small and large, in 30 different industries. I wrote about it at The Atlantic:

It works like this. Parents-to-be often initiate a conversation with employers about bringing a baby to work, though managers are often grateful to hear innovative suggestions to retain a key employee once parental leave has ended. While researching my book, The Custom-Fit Workplace, I found managers eager to maintain consistency in service to the important clients a new parent serves and to prevent valued parents from off-ramping only to return to work later for a competitor. With that as motivation, managers set up a program that says who is eligible, for how long (usually until a baby starts crawling), and how to handle liability concerns and problems that could arise. Office workers bring the baby there; cubicle workers either keep the baby in their work area or are sometimes temporarily given an office to use while the baby comes to work. The baby is cared for as needs arise, reducing the chance of meltdown crying. While parents with babies at work are expected to get their jobs done, their work methods change -- "power spurts" is a way one woman described it. Another said she would email, edit, conference call, and update the firm's web site while breastfeeding her infant. Co-workers voluntarily pitch in and parents take work home. "It takes a village," remarked many of the people involved with babies-at-work programs.

Babies in Business Solutions offers a wealth of information about how a baby-at-work program works and how to start one at your company, what types of companies offer these programs, and how media attention creates positive returns for a business. Parents participating in the program—yes, dads, you too can take your baby to work -- report working more efficiently and their job satisfaction and loyalty benefits the business. And here’s a part I like: co-workers of parents bringing babies to work report that the infants create a humanizing presence in the workplace and morale improves. Organizations need that. Humans need that!

So while some companies may see the Yahoo and Best Buy bans on flexible working-from-home as an invitation to imitate and reduce workplace flexibility for employees, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Over two-thirds of American families have two parents in the paid labor force. Let’s all -- workers, managers, owners -- "lean in” to the many ways of solving work-family challenges. Taking infants to work is one creative solution. Ingenious, entrepreneurial Americans surely can think of even more ways to work flexibly.

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