Could that be a gurgle or - whoa - a stinky diaper in the next cubicle?
Yes, "baby on board" is the latest - and the most controversial - trend in corporate day care for a small but growing number of brave employers. The twist is parents do the care, toting infants with them to the office each day and juggling bottles and wipes, conference calls and e-mail.
Proponents hail the idea as a workplace morale-booster, along with a needed benefit in a country lacking in affordable child care. At least 100 mostly small businesses nationwide now offer the benefit, according to the online nonprofit Parenting in the Workplace Institute. But naysayers call parenting and working a poor mix, and say infants are an unwanted distraction for employees.
"The majority of people are very skeptical," says Carla Moquin, a Framingham mother of two who heads the institute. "There's still a fear that a company won't be seen as professional if they have babies at work."
The debate certainly illustrates our messy slide into a digital world, where we still often think of work and home as separate even as these spheres mix. Is it a faux pas or a badge of honor to check e-mail at your son's soccer game? If we can work anywhere, can we parent in the office? How much do we really want to integrate these two sides of life? There are no easy answers, and how we mix work and home will be a continuing source of debate - and tensions.
Many parents bring older children to the office during gaps in child care or on school holidays. But bringing a baby to work routinely is a different challenge. Employers offering this option typically allow babies to stay with parents until age six months or at most one year - or until they begin to crawl. As parents know, toddlers sleep less, talk more, and don't take no for an answer.
Still, even a few months of workplace parenting demand sensitivity and careful planning. Crying is the make-or-break issue, especially in an open-plan work world. At some organizations, co-workers informally pitch in when a young visitor is unhappy, yet other employers have more specific policies.
The 21 Kansas state agencies that allow babies at work, for example, demand that parents identify two willing co-workers to act as back-up caregivers. Rather than distracting, "having a baby in the office actually calms people down and helps morale," comments Governor Kathleen Sebelius in an e-mail. She's backed the idea since bringing her first baby to work with her a quarter-century ago when she directed the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.
At the Cabot, Vt.-based children's clothing maker Zutano, parents bringing a baby to work are moved into private offices for the duration and forbidden by company policy from creating a "disruptive situation." For safety reasons, mainly administrative staff, who make up about two-thirds of the 31-person workforce, are eligible. Others at the company's warehouse or retail store can get partial reimbursement of child-care costs. Since 2002, 11 babies of nine mothers have participated.
"They can nurse or change diapers or do whatever they need to do," says president Michael Belenky. The option is a great retention tool, and workplace babies also make handy sizing and catalog models, he says.
Try as they might, babies did not mix with work at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault. After three mothers brought their infants to the Raleigh nonprofit between 2003 and 2006, the board of directors revoked the benefit, says operations director Debra Evans. "It was not a total success," she recalls. "It's a sensitive issue."
One mother doted on her infant so much that it made colleagues "wonder how much work that person was getting done," says Evans. A noisy baby who wanted constant attention distracted an employee in an adjoining office. Another worker "freaked out" when a mother rested her messy child on a passing desk. "It is complicated," says Evans.
Still, some skeptics do become converts.
Wendy Zanotelli, chief operations officer at the small California credit union UNCLE, initially vetoed the idea, fearing customer disapproval, in 2003. Relenting on a trial basis, she's since been amazed to learn that the benefit is practically a sales tool. "It worked out amazing," says Zanotelli, whose son was number 17 in a lineup of 19 babies - including four brought by dads - who've spent their first months at the 80-employee organization. Customers "loved the fact that we were very family oriented."
Not surprisingly, former nanny Kimberly Kelly finds having babies at work is a selling point. She owns Your Baby Naturally, a Holliston children's clothing store that is also "day care" for her two sons, ages 1 and 3, and one employee's 16-month-old son. Customers like the fully child-proof facility, which also has a back room staff nursery with TV, crib, changing table, microwave, and fridge.
Still, there are trade-offs. Customers sometimes have to wait while staff tends to a runaway, and everyone has to overlook a homey degree of chaos. "If it doesn't get vacuumed or the store is in a mess, it's give and take, we all cover for each other," says Kelly. "It's not life or death if something doesn't get put away."
Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.