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Children in the office: For some, it's workable

Office manager Sue Pratt is talking to a deliveryman with a baby wrapped around her hip and a toddler clutching her leg.

Three-year-old Breanne lets go of her leg and wanders into another room. A few seconds later, she is howling, and Ms. Pratt darts into the room to see what is wrong.

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"No, Samantha. You come sit with your mommy. That wasn't very nice. That was mean," she says as she yanks Samantha, 2 1/2 , who has bopped Breanne on the head, through the office to her mother. Now Samantha is sobbing, which wakes up 7-week-old Sarah, who was sleeping in a carriage.

Breanne hops on her tricycle and aims straight for 14-month-old Travis' leg when Ms. Pratt runs over and pulls Travis to safety just in time.

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Welcome to a typical day at the Natural Baby Co., a mail-order business that allows -- encourages, actually -- employees to bring their children to work. There's no day-care center or baby sitter here -- just children wobbling through the West Trenton, N.J., office and warehouse, toys strewn across the floor like land mines, high-pitched, boisterous voices, like Muzak run amok, blathering in the background.

"We're pretty weird," says owner Jane Martin, who is breast-feeding a baby while fielding calls about the company's Earth-friendly products, which include lambskin diaper covers, futon cribs, organic cotton rompers and homeopathic teething tablets.

With more workers gingerly balancing family and job responsibilities, companies are acting like kindly uncles, offering to take the children for the day now and then -- as long as it doesn't interfere with business. Some firms arrange field trips for employees' children on school holidays, while a few grudgingly permit children to tag along at the office in emergencies.

"It depends on two informal variables: who's the company, and what is your position in the company," says Renee Y. Magid, president of Initiatives Inc., a center for work-family issues in Horsham, Pa. "If you have a position with some clout, you probably could find it easier to work out some arrangement that is temporary. But most of the people that we talk with, when absolutely in a desperate bind, will in fact stay at home or call in sick."

At Automatic Data Processing in Essex County, N.J., a mother who couldn't find child care slogged to the office with her newborn for a few weeks. She set up a playpen next to her desk and worked "pretty effectively," says Sharon Murphy, senior director of corporate employee relations, adding that the company in Roseland "really needed her back."

The Natural Baby Co., which has 30 employees and does $2 million in annual sales, outshines others when it comes to being kid-friendly. Jane Martin, an eco-minded former computer analyst, gave birth to the company in her apartment 10 years ago, after her son David was born. As it grew, she hired other mothers, who brought their children along. When they moved into an office six years ago, the children moved, too.

"I started the business to work with my kids. I couldn't ask somebody else to leave their kids home," says Ms. Martin, 35.

The pay is low, the benefits are skimpy and the noise level is, at times, deafening. But there are perks. Work schedules are set up around children's schedules. If a child is sick, the parent -- OK, mother; there are no fathers except for Jane's husband, Dan -- stays home.

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The office, too, is arranged with children in mind. In a corner of the warehouse is a play area with a television -- "we finally broke down and bought an electronic baby sitter," Ms. Martin says with a sigh -- beanbag chairs, a play kitchen and child-size table and chairs. The mothers, most of whom take orders over the phone, can peek into the play area through two windows.

But the children are all over the place, chasing each other, yanking on telephone cords or spinning on chairs. Working here distinguishes the women from the girls. Anyone who can handle the phones while giving sips of juice, changing diapers or refereeing fights can do anything.

"Some people can't do more than one thing at a time. I can do 10," says Chris Naylor, charging briskly through the office with year-old Jessica latched to her hip.

Talk about having it all. Ms. Pratt hauls two kids, a diaper bag, a cooler and a briefcase to the office every day.

"Sometimes I wish I could have a job where I could go to work and come home and say, 'Oh, hi.' Having to watch kids is one job, and working is another. So I feel like I'm doing two jobs, and then I come home and clean the house," she says.

But most of the parents say they "like" spending 24 hours a day with their children. They don't have to pay a baby sitter or worry about what their children are doing while they're at work.

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"I have my daughter with me," says Samantha's mother, Donna Sandfort, who gave up a $47,000-a-year computer-programming job and now makes $6.25 an hour. "I don't think there's a price tag you can put on that."

Sue Fuller, who has two children, says it's a treat for them to come to the office. They ride buggies and bikes in the warehouse and watch videos all day. "My daughter begs to come," she says.

Ms. Fuller started working at the company five years ago because she didn't want to leave her children, whom she had when she was in her 40s. "I waited so long and wanted kids so bad. I wanted to see them start walking, talking, everything."

Obviously, it takes a certain parenting style, say the patience of Donna Reed with a -- of Roseanne Arnold's indifference, to work at the company. Ms. Sandfort, who is expecting her second child next month, has it down pat. When Ms. Pratt brings over her crying daughter, Ms. Sandfort politely asks a customer to hold and whispers to Samantha, "When I get off the phone, we'll talk."

After the call, she comforts Samantha and then goes back to the phones.

Everyone pitches in -- in most cases. "Except when it comes to changing diapers," says Ms. Pratt. "Then you look for the real mom."

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When two children don't get along, Ms. Pratt juggles schedules so they aren't in the office at the same time. She tries to limit the number of children to five. More than that, and they "go kind of nuts," she says.

Somehow, people manage to work.

"If you think about it, mothers who are at home with their kids do the laundry and cook and all the other things they do. It's not like they sit there all day holding a child," says Ms. Martin, who now has three.

Employees who don't have children say they like the "Romper Room"-like atmosphere. Sort of.

"It's got its drawbacks, like when they pull on the computer wire or pour grape juice on the keyboards," says account manager Stephen Craig. "But it breaks the monotony. It seems a little crazy, but it works really well here."

Amid the commotion, Dan Martin, Jane's husband, runs his law practice, although he said he was thinking of moving out soon.

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"It's not a great place to have clients come. People like to see a lawyer who looks rich and makes a lot of money so he'll make a lot of money for them," he deadpans, looking more like a camp counselor than a lawyer, in jeans and a sweat shirt.

Important phone calls -- to a judge, for example -- sometimes get disrupted.

"Judges are kind of pompous people, and they're used to being listened to, and I have to explain, well, there's a baby screaming and another's stepping on me," he says.

Few companies are as friendly as the Natural Baby Co., but many are opening their doors to employees' children, at least for a day or so.

For the last three years, Shared Medical Systems in Malvern, Pa., has arranged field trips on school holidays, such as Martin Luther King Day, spring break and for two weeks in the summer for children ages 5 to 12.

SMS contracts with the Seedlings, a child-care center, for outings to the Baltimore Aquarium, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Franklin Institute, Hershey Park, roller-skating and many other places, says Theresa Hoopes, the company's work life specialist.

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Parents pay $25, and the company chips in an additional $5 per child.

Ms. Hoopes says SMS wanted to help parents with child care on days when the children have off but they don't.

"It's hard to find periodic backup and emergency care," she says. "Parents love to see their kids doing something. If they're at home, they're going to be in front of a TV all day."

Children get picked up at 8:30 a.m. and dropped off at 4:30 p.m. at the parent's office. The company averages 45 children per trip.

Diane Morgan of the Seedlings runs the Great Escapes program, as it is called, at four companies -- SMS, US Healthcare, CIGNA Corp. and Rohm & Haas Co. She said that employees were grateful for the program and took fewer days off.

For the children, the outings "are a blast," says Roxanne Korostowski, assistant director of employee services at CIGNA and mother of an 8-year-old girl. "They come home tired . . . which is good."


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