We started our baby program in 2002, and we have had 21 babies at work so far. We once had five babies at the same time among an office staff of 18! We allow babies to come to work until they reach a year of age.
We are a baby clothing company, and having babies at work gives us really important inspiration--we really are about babies! It's a very important program. I believe it could be an important program in many different types of workplaces, although not all--we restrict babies in areas of our company where it wouldn't be safe, such as in our distribution areas.
Times have changed--everybody is in the workforce now. I think that this idea that you can pass your baby off to someone else at six weeks is really not realistic or humane. It's certainly not a way to create a great next generation. We really believe that the first year is so important to the development of human beings--the connections that are made in that first year. The baby program has certainly made our staff closer; it's helped to build a closeness and camaraderie in the office. It's definitely helped us to retain employees. Often, a baby is passed among different people in the office if the mom has to do something else. The program builds a strong community around the child's care.
The program has literally cost us nothing, and it's a huge benefit. We haven't seen any downside from allowing babies at work. We're not a huge company, but we kind of play musical offices when there's a baby. The mom and baby move into an office that has a door and is big enough to fit a crib. The liability risk is very low because each parent is providing their own child care. From a productivity standpoint, it really gets our key people back to work sooner and creates strong loyalty for them. If someone's six-week-old baby is off at day care, you're going to lose productivity because their mind won't be there, and they'll be headed home every time the baby has a sniffle.
Most of the participating parents have been moms, but we did have one father use the program. Our distribution manager brought his baby to work for about two days each week and then decided to stay home to be a full-time caregiver. After two or three years at home, he returned to work for us again.
The program's impact on retention has been huge. We're running a fairly sophisticated business in a fairly remote area of Vermont, so retention is really important for us. It's not like New York or San Francisco where we would have a bigger pool of qualified people. A lot of our people we've cultivated from the beginning of Zutano. We greatly value our workforce--they're hard to replace--and the baby program makes them more likely to stay.
The biggest benefit I see is the health and well-being of the babies and the relationship that the parents are able to have with their babies. My wife and I had our children close by in the early years starting Zutano. It was very valuable to have that relationship and to be around them in those years--I can't imagine putting a child into day care at 6 weeks. For the company, the program has helped us to be authentic in the baby products we're making. I compare it to Burton making snowboards. If their people don't take a day off sometimes to go boarding, it's hard to continue to relate to that world and to their users. Now that our own kids are in their 20s, the baby program helps to keep us focused on our core goals.
I really think that expanding baby programs, among other policy changes, would have a really positive effect on supporting families. This is a really big issue in the United States. I feel like people don't have the time and the community around them that they used to. I think we're lacking a lot compared to the rest of the world as far as how we raise our children. I think wider adoption of these programs would be a really big step in helping us to raise a healthy next generation and support families.
I think that a baby program is something that companies should really think about seriously and try out. These programs give true benefits for employees. With a raise, people forget about it quickly, but bringing your baby to work is a real benefit. In our culture, we have really separated children from the world, so I think people don't have a lot of experience being around babies and children. There's a myth that babies are constantly fussy, that they're always crying, and that it's really troublesome to have them around. But especially in that first year, if babies really get what they need--they have support, are nursed when they need to be, held a lot, and their needs are met, it's really not disruptive. Even if you ask people here that don't have babies and haven't participated in the program, there's very little issue with people being disturbed by having babies around. My office right now is right above one of our designers, Vickie, who has her baby with her, and I never hear the baby except in positive ways like cooing.
We just sponsored a new nursing station at the Vermont airport. I certainly don't want that to be taken to mean that babies shouldn't be nursed in public, but the idea of having a clean and private place for pumping is a really big issue. I don't know that people can really feel comfortable sitting next to other people and pumping. Being in airports can be really chaotic and loud; it's not a very relaxing place. I think for mothers and babies to have a nice quiet place to go to is really fantastic. I think all these kinds of things are really important--anything we can do to help support families. We're all expected to do everything in our culture--have careers and raise children--but we don't necessarily have uncles and grandmas living down the street. The more support families can get, I think it really pays off in a big way.
If the United States could start leading in some of these things instead of being on the bottom of the list, it would be wonderful. We need to change the culture and get behind these things, because it only pays off. Starting off by supporting people at the early stages is really important.
Michael Belenky, CEO
Amanda and baby
Designing at Zutano (with babies!)
On the move
Denise multi-tasking with baby
Mamava breast-feeding and pumping station at Burlington International Airport in Vermont, sponsored by Zutano