The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0101

Babies at Work

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We talk to two very different small businesses about their Babies at Work programs, where new parents can have their infants with them at the office. With COVID sending so many office workers home—and pushing women out of the workforce altogether—acknowledging employees’ whole selves is more important than ever. The companies in today’s episode talk about how they’ve adapted their programs for a work-from-home-during-a-pandemic reality.


The Full Transcript:

Wailin: [00:00:00] A few years ago, when Leah Silber found out she was expecting her first child, she arrived at a career crossroads that a lot of women face.

Leah: [00:00:09] Okay, what’s going to happen now? Because I’ve had this company, this business, this job in my life, that’s been basically my baby for a really long time. And that’s been the central focus of my life. And I’m about to introduce another thing that is also supposed to have that sort of position. Do I have to give up one to have the other? Are they both going to be there at the same time, and I’m just going to sort of not give either the amount of attention they need? It’s a very stressful point.

[00:00:34] And historically, obviously, we also know that it is a point where a lot of women do in fact, give up on one or the other and decide, okay, no, I can’t have a family, or decide, I’m going to exit the workforce. And I didn’t like either of those options. And I felt like I was in more of an autonomous position than a lot of people because I was the CEO of my company, and there have to be some sort of solution for it.

Wailin: [00:00:57] Leah is the CEO of Tilde, a company based in Portland, Oregon, that makes software tools for engineers. She also wrote an essay in 2017 called “Babies at Work: It’s Weird that it’s Weird.” At Tilde, her husband is her business partner, and he was the one who first suggested bringing their baby to work.

Leah: [00:01:15] I was very much like, haha, that’s a really dumb idea, try again. I think it’s going to be a problem with the lawyers. I think it’s going to be a problem with the landlords. I’m worried about productivity, insurance, etc, etc. But fast forward six months, and we’re sitting in planning meetings and my husband’s like at the whiteboard with my son in a carrier wearing him. And there’s another baby across the table sitting with her mom, and it’s business as usual.

[00:01:40] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:01:42] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:01:47] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Today, we’re talking about something I know very little about, which is babies. Actually, most of what I know about raising children comes from listening to your stories and chatting with your daughter when she makes cameos on Zoom calls.

Wailin: [00:02:01] Or when she’s making a ton of noise right above the recording studio in my basement and then we have to rerecord everything?

Shaun: [00:02:06] Oh, that just adds character. How are you holding up having the kiddo at home?

Wailin: [00:02:12] Uh, we are actually okay during this time. She’s adapted pretty well to doing school over Zoom, I guess. All of our years of unregulated screentime have totally paid off, because she is so happy to sit in front of a screen all day.

[00:02:29] And you know, Basecamp has been really understanding and flexible about everyone’s home life situation during COVID. Whether that’s caring for kids or elderly parents or just our own mental health. But a lot of families in America, especially working moms, are definitely not okay. In September 865,000 women over the age of 20 dropped out of the workforce in this country. Do you want to guess how many men in that age group did the same?

Shaun: [00:02:56] Oh, I haven’t the foggiest.

Wailin: [00:02:57] 216,000. That’s only a quarter of the number of women who stopped working. So moms are having to sacrifice their careers to manage their households and care for children during the pandemic. And this is going to have devastating long term consequences.

Shaun: [00:03:11] Today on the show, we talked to two small businesses that were ahead of their time in thinking about how to support working parents. These companies are in very different industries but both have programs where babies can come to the office. And not just the CEO’s baby.

Wailin: [00:03:24] Boss Baby?

Shaun: [00:03:25] No. Not just Alec Baldwin, the Boss Baby, but any employee’s baby. So let’s get into it.

Emily: [00:03:38] My name is Emily Hall Warren. I am the director of administration at the W.S. Badger Company. Badger is a manufacturer of natural and organic body care products. We’re located in the town of Gilsum, New Hampshire, which is just outside of Keene, Southwestern New Hampshire, a town of about 800.

Wailin: [00:03:57] What percentage of that 800 is Badger employees?

Emily: [00:04:01] I don’t know exactly, but we have a good number.

Wailin: [00:04:03] Badger has about 85 employees and has been running a successful babies at work program for over 10 years. The idea came from a pregnant employee who’d brought her older baby to work at a previous job.

Emily: [00:04:15] She came to our COO and said, “You know, I have this idea. Can we make it happen?” And Katie Schwerin, who’s our COO said, “Yeah, let’s look into it.” Our HR coordinator at the time nearly had a heart attack wondering about the insurance. And other than that, I think we thought about what it would be like for the mom or dad. What it would be like for the baby. And then what it would be like for the co-workers and how we could make it work for everyone in that situation.

Wailin: [00:04:46] Over the last 10 years, Badger’s babies at work program has evolved and aspects of it have gotten more formalized, but the general principles are the same.

Emily: [00:04:54] From the beginning, though, we’ve had an agreement with the parents which outlines the expectations of what the parent can expect and what the the team can expect in terms of the amount of time they spend caregiving for their child, what’s going to happen when and if, because we assume it’s going to happen, the baby’s having a hard day. We always have two backup caregivers. And then we do always say that this is a opportunity, but not a guarantee. So if it doesn’t work for the parent, or this particular child happens to be colicky, for example, there’s always sort of an out, although we’ve rarely had to employ that out.

Wailin: [00:05:37] And so with the backup caregivers, are these co-workers who raise their hand? Or is there a formal process for you know, soliciting volunteers or asking someone to sign up as a backup caregiver?

Emily: [00:05:50] It’s pretty personal. And I would say it’s a position that’s in fairly high demand in the organization.

Wailin: [00:05:57] Oh, that’s so cute.

Emily: [00:05:58] It’s a little competitive. So we recently had a baby on site whose parents both worked here. So they both had co-workers who were angling for the opportunity to be a baby holder. This baby I think, had five or six people.

[00:06:15] So usually, the parent thinks about, you know, who do they feel comfortable with? Having a relationship where they could say, Hey, I’m needing some help today? Can you hold my baby? Well, or can you can you be in charge while I’m in this meeting that I really need to focus on? And then they come to sort of the HR department and the team leader. And on occasion, you know, we’ve said, oh, it looks like your two people that you’ve chosen are people who would need to be in the same meetings as you, for example, maybe we should think of a third person who who doesn’t have the same work commitments.

Wailin: [00:06:46] One thing to note is that babies at work doesn’t mean having a loud daycare in the middle of an office. It’s not like that scene in Toy Story 3, where the toys end up in the toddler room, and it’s total pandemonium.

Toy Story 3 Clip: [00:06:57] Rex…

Come to Poppa!

[Toddlers screaming and stampeding. Toys screaming, squeaking.]

Wailin: [00:07:04] At Badger, babies are usually there from three months when their parent returns from leave, to six months, or whenever they start to crawl.

Emily: [00:07:11] It’s a very short period of time, although it’s a really pivotal time for a new parent. They’ve had a new baby, their whole life has been turned upside down, and then they’re trying to reenter the workforce at the same time. I think for the parent, there’s a benefit around support from the community and easing back into the work world.

[00:07:32] Not that long ago, we had whole communities and generations of families to help parents in the transition of becoming a parent. And that’s fallen away in a lot of ways in our society. It’s really lovely to watch a work community support a new parent. When I had my children, I wasn’t working at Badger at the time, and I had the experience of having this major change in my life, and then going back to work and the baby is not visible, you know. So it’s very easy for your co-workers to forget that you’re not sleeping at night, and you’re trying to figure out how to navigate all the the needs of a newborn. And there’s something really heartwarming about seeing the baby with the mom or the with the dad. And you see the co-worker saying, “Oh, I remember this period of having a child” and “Oh, my baby did this.” And “Oh, are you struggling with that? Here’s what I did.” So it really creates a visible connection to what that that new parent is going through.

Leah: [00:08:37] The first and easy thing is most people like babies.

Wailin: [00:08:40] Again, this is Leah Silber, CEO of Tilde.

Leah: [00:08:44] Even people who were self proclaimed not baby people, like they’re pretty charming. And if they’re not that charming in the moment, like, okay, you can stay in your office, and I’ll stay in my office, right? The environment has to be, admittedly, it has to be correct for a program like this. You have to have the ability to have somewhat private spaces. But thankfully, we had that luxury.

[00:09:06] There’s your family, and there’s your work. But at the end of the day, you do spend like a tremendous amount of your life with your colleagues. When you have a very strong thing pulling you in opposite directions to have all your focus and attention on your work and all of your focus and attention on your family, that’s a really uncomfortable spot to be in. And a lot of people just end up feeling like they’re not doing their best at either. But if they can overlap a lot more, you don’t have to feel that way. You can do justice to both causes at the same time. And also the people around you, it doesn’t feel as much like they’re competing for resources.

[00:09:46] In many cases, it would feel just like you sort of checked out at work because you have this whole big thing that you’re so concerned about that really is all consuming. But if other people are there sort of seeing the baby’s milestones with you and like getting to know it as a person, a person with the intellectual capacity of a potato for a while for sure. But still, it doesn’t become something that they resent in most cases. It becomes something that they’re a part of, because they’re not listening to you babble some more about your kid who they really have no attachment to, right?

Wailin: [00:10:19] Leah started babies at work with similar parameters as Badger’s program. She planned for the little ones to be with their parent at the office until they were 6-8 months or mobile, whichever milestone came later.

Leah: [00:10:30] I was back in the office probably at three or four weeks with the baby a couple days a week. At that stage, it just almost didn’t matter at all. Like I could just walk around with the baby in the carrier. And then a lot of cases people didn’t even notice that he was there.

Wailin: [00:10:45] And something interesting happened once Leah’s baby and another baby born around the same time reached the age they were supposed to graduate from babies at work.

Leah: [00:10:53] We couldn’t really find a compelling reason to suspend the program. So we were like, okay, we’ll keep it up until one. And once we got to one, we adjusted the parameters to say, you can bring a childcare provider with you to the office. We’re not a big enough company to have company provided childcare. But we do have a space that we put a bunch of toys in and mat and made it sort of safe for babies. And so for the first beginning period, we had parents like baby wearing their tiny babies. And for the rest of the period, we had babies down the hall with childcare providers who could totally also be your partner or their other parent. It worked really well.

[00:11:31] But to rewind for a second, the idea is not to push you to come back the moment that you have the baby. And I think that that’s an easy thing that people can get confused about. It’s just to make sure that you have whatever options that you need for the duration of this really life changing experience that you’re having. The babies were really around from like, it’s just a potato, like I said earlier. To like, they’re walking down the hall and saying the names of your colleagues and waving at them through their office windows and stuff like that, which is a really awesome experience to be able to be a part of.

Emily: [00:12:07] So sometimes you would see the parent working in their office while the baby was sleeping or playing. And then sometimes you would see, you know, a co-worker or the parent walking up and down the halls bouncing a baby. And then sometimes you would see a baby participating in meetings.

Wailin: [00:12:23] Again, this is Emily Hall Warren from Badger. They have a conference room set aside where parents can work while their babies nap or sit around. For parents in Badger’s manufacturing or warehouse operations, they might be reassigned to do something like packaging work in an office for the duration of babies at work, so that they can be with their child who obviously can’t be inside a manufacturing facility.

Emily: [00:12:44] You know, when you walk through the halls of the organization, and you watch people walk by and then stop and see a baby, they always have a smile on their face. When we have too long without one, we feel the lack of that.

[00:13:01] We see so many moms in particular drop out of the workforce after having children. And so there’s a benefit to bringing moms back to work and feeling supported. After becoming a parent. If you want to talk about sort of formal ROI for our company, we have great retention and a really easy time recruiting. And I think part of it is because of benefits like this.

Wailin: [00:13:26] A program like babies at work can really only happen at a company where managers see their employees as full human beings with personal lives and commitments. And that brings us to present day where it’s basically babies at work all the time for people who are working from home during COVID. Its babies at work and kids at school, which is also home where you do your work, you get the idea.

Emily: [00:13:48] Well, I think like everyone else, we went into a little bit of a firefighting mode in March. Many of our parents needed to be home to care for their children who were doing remote learning or didn’t have daycare available. We accommodated that and provided quite a bit of flexibility in the ways that work was getting done so parents could be home caring for their children.

[00:14:12] We did have a mom who had her baby during that period. That was kind of sad, because we didn’t get to do the in-person baby shower that we would normally do for her. But we did all the baby shower games remotely. And then we made sure to drop off all the gifts at her house. She’s doing babies at work at home.

Wailin: [00:14:33] So what does babies at work at home look like? Because then it’s like, oh, well, I’m already home, right? So what does it look like during the work day for those parents who have a three to six month old?

Emily: [00:14:46] Yeah, so one of the expectations of babies at work is that even if you are here for an eight hour day, we have no expectation that someone will be able to work eight hours. You can’t give good care to your child and work at the same time. So part of that is just a loosening of the expectations of time spent in output. To say, we acknowledge that you’re caring for a new person, and we don’t think that you’re going to be able to get the same amount of work done that you would normally.

Wailin: [00:15:16] I mean, do you feel like having that policy in place and having, honestly so much practice with it and getting used to that idea, did it set you up pretty well for the new environment we’re in where you’re now going to have parents of older children who kind of need that flexibility, too, because their kids are learning from home?

Emily: [00:15:39] Yes, I think it’s given us a model for what we can expect from parents working from home. We have had more discussion. I mean, there is a trust factor when people go and work from home and you can’t visibly see them the same way you would in the workplace. And we’re really focused on community so we had never practiced much with remote employees.

[00:16:03] We’re just working through it. We also have found some people are like living their best life working from home and are delighted to be doing that. And other people, it’s not their ideal situation. So we’ve tried to accommodate employees to say, this isn’t really what I want to be doing. We’ve tried to look around the business and say, do we have space for them, where they can have a socially distanced workspace to come back, if that’s what they would prefer.

[00:16:30] We don’t want people to leave their their home selves at the door when they come into work. And babies at work is one example of that. But there’s lots of other ways that we try to sort of acknowledge and participate in people’s whole selves. We publish a weekly newsletter amongst our employees for sort of these more personal sharing of things that people are doing. There’s also sort of a classified section. We’re in New Hampshire, so sometimes it says things like, I have a rooster I need to get rid of. But you’ll also see people posting activities that they’re involved in outside of work. Here’s a fundraiser I’m involved in, are you interested in participating? So any way that you can acknowledge and appreciate the wholeness of what people do in their lives, I think you make a stronger community.

Leah: [00:17:24] When you start a program like this, it sends a signal to people that you value them not just as units of productivity, but as human beings and that you care about the other things that they care about. That you don’t want them to have to make difficult choices about family life versus work life.

[00:17:46] For me personally, it’s also something I just care a lot about because that moment that I talked about earlier, where women have to decide which thing they might need to give up on. Or any childbearing parent. That moment becomes so much less of a thing. I’m in technology, and we have a huge underrepresentation problem in general. And so many people fall out of the funnel right where they have their babies who wouldn’t otherwise want to. And if people want to go and be a stay at home parents, that’s great, but a lot of people don’t want to and they just don’t have a choice.

[00:18:21] So it’s, it’s really meaningful to be able to have something in the middle that says you do what’s right for you, but either option will work. And this is not a huge fork in the road for you. You get to decide what you want to do here. So it makes a huge difference in representation and sort of the childbearing penalty that a lot of people and a lot of women specifically have to deal with.

Wailin: [00:18:43] Did you see this New York Times story that ran over the weekend about tension at tech companies over parents in the workplace versus non parents in the workplace?

Leah: [00:18:53] I didn’t, but I would imagine some of it is, I’m annoyed that there are children on Zoom calls, and I’m annoyed that parents are taking off more time to deal with like homeschooling. Is that sort of the direction that it went?

Wailin: [00:19:04] Oh, 100%. Yeah, it was actually a really upsetting article to me, because it focused on the tech industry, which is our industry. I just thought about this resentment that’s forming, or this divide that’s happening between parents and non parents. And I just, you can see women being forced to leave the workforce.

Leah: [00:19:28] Yes.

Wailin: [00:19:28] And the tech workforce, kind of even more than they were in the before times because of these kinds of divides. And it also struck me that I think working parents are kind of like uniquely denigrated in America. We’re the only, as you point out in your piece in 2017, we’re the only OECD country that doesn’t have mandated paid parental leave. But I also feel like, because the American relationship with work is so screwed up, there’s all kinds of divides among the workforce. Even if you don’t have a child, maybe you have a disability or you have something else going on in your life that’s making it very difficult to work right now, especially in a pandemic. And the corporation should be as understanding and as flexible about whatever that need is as they are about working parents, which is a very visible subset of the issue right now.

[00:20:21] But yeah, that that article brought up a lot of feelings for me.

Leah: [00:20:24] I mean, the options can’t be either screw a whole bunch of people or make a whole bunch of other people miserable. People need to be thinking a lot more creatively down the middle. If people are going to be working from home in a long term way, which it looks like, I think a lot of companies just need to reexamine how they think about people and their work life balances, which we’ve all always talked about. But it’s going to become more and more relevant right now and probably affect the bottom line a little bit more and more. Because people are going to leave the jobs that don’t make them feel comfortable, and there’s going to be more easy remote options available.

[00:21:02] I mean, it’s a luxury to be able to leave a job. But as more and more companies go remote, more positions become accessible to more people. And if one environment is not going to support you, as a parent, or support you as a pet owner or support you as a person who’s having a mental health crisis, because they’re super lonely. There are going to be other options. I think everybody sort of needs to take a step back and realize like, “Okay, my problem might be that I have children to take care of, or children’s schooling that I’m now responsible for, but very few people are just thriving right now, right?”

[00:21:37] A little bit of empathy, I think, can go a long way. And this might just be the sort of event that forces everybody to look at their colleagues in a more holistic way. The messaging has to come from the top down, obviously, that like, yes, this is a difficult time, and everybody is going to be different right now. And we need to support each other. And then as different populations become clearly groups that need different needs, we’re just going to have to figure out how to accommodate them. And parenting is one of the first big ones on the list.

[00:22:11] It’s very strange to think about, because there’s not really a moral imperative to have children. It’s a choice that people make in most cases. But it’s a very common choice. And it just puts everybody in an awkward kind of spot, where the parents feel like I know how you are. And I used to be like that. But you don’t know how I am and you don’t appreciate my struggles. And you can’t understand my position. And people who don’t have children or have chosen not to have children, or can’t have children are just like why you get all this extra accommodation, because you have all these children and these needs and whatnot. And this is affecting my productivity, and it’s kind of annoying, and I don’t know what the answer is there.

[00:22:52] Everybody needs to have a little bit more empathy for everybody right now. And companies that can’t muster the empathy to give their employees the room that they need to be human beings will hopefully fail. And it’s not that I’m wishing for failure. It’s just, if people have options, at least in tech, I would say they take them.

[00:23:14] I want to just imagine this dreamy world where if you’re a bad actor accidentally or on purpose as a company, you either figure it out and get kicked back into shape or you lose and people move on to happier places.

[00:23:28] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:23:37] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Music for the show is by Clip Art.

Shaun: [00:23:42] You can find that Leah Silber on twitter at @wifelette. That’s wife-L-E-T-T-E. We’ll link to her 2017 “Babies at Work” essay on our website at Rework.fm. You can find Badger at BadgerBalm.com and there’s a whole section on their website about their babies at work program.

Wailin: [00:24:00] Both Tilde and Badger used a resource called the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, which advocates for babies at work programs and keeps a database of companies that are baby inclusive. They are at BabiesAtWork.org.