Welcoming Kids at Work

Shenandoah University wants to make it easier for parents to return to campus after a baby by inviting newborns to join their moms and dads at work. Older kids are also welcome if child care falls through or in emergencies.

August 29, 2017
Megan Bureau
Megan Bureau and her son, Corbin, 2.

Going back to work after parental leave can feel like quitting something “cold turkey:” One day it’s nothing but you and your child and the next, it’s business as usual -- anxious check-ins with caregivers and/or breast pumps notwithstanding.

That’s how Bob Keasler, vice president for finance and administration at Virginia’s Shenandoah University, described how things work for many college and university employees -- just not his, at least not anymore. Starting this semester, Shenandoah is introducing a formal policy allowing parents to bring babies to work on a regular basis. Older kids are now also welcome when childcare falls through or in cases of emergency.

“Several months ago we started looking at all of our policies, trying to make sure we were consistent in a lot of areas,” Keasler said. “We were talking leave and maternity leave and how difficult it can be for new parents -- any new parent, by birth, adoption, whatever -- to have this leave period, and then go from being at home with the child to all of the sudden taking the child to day care and coming to work.” 

Those involved in the conversation agreed, and eventually asked, “Why don’t we have a transition period, where, during the course of leave, you can start getting back into the job a little bit?” Keasler said. “You start getting that employee back into things and up to speed, and promote that family atmosphere.”

Shenandoah’s resulting Children in the Workplace policy says the university is “a family friendly institution and employees are welcome to bring their infant child, up to 3 months of age, to work on a regular basis.” 

Beyond that, it says, “the workplace should not be an employee’s primary child-care option.” When child-care arrangements fall through, however, “employees are welcome to bring their child(ren) to work, but this should be on an emergency basis only and at infrequent intervals.” 

Shenandoah adopted the latter part of the policy because employees sometimes take entire days off to resolve day care and other issues, Keasler said.

“You have to use good judgment, but if they’re at work or there half a day with children with them, it’s a new way of thinking about reducing absenteeism.” 

As for “judgment,” Shenandoah’s policy attempts to address that, too: Children “may only accompany their parent to work as long as it does not disrupt the employee’s work, their colleagues and students, and it is a safe environment for the child(ren),” it reads. 

Hilary Rau, a staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said allowing parents to bring older children to work on an emergency basis is really “just good business practice in many cases, since the alternative would usually be that the parent takes the day off of work and doesn't get anything done at all.”

Of infant-friendly policies in particular, Rau said many employers have “babies at work” policies welcoming infants of up to six months of age or those who are not yet mobile -- whichever comes sooner.

Such policies are helpful for breastfeeding employees and can help those who want to return to work do so earlier than some day-care age policies allow, Rau said. As an added benefit, such policies also provide “a huge financial benefit to employees by relieving them of weeks or months of childcare expenses at essentially no cost to the institution.”

Over all, Rau said such policies can work very well, as long as clear guidelines are in place so “everyone is clear on expectations.”

'A Lot of Possibilities'

Marguerite Landenburger, director of grants and research support, is new to Shenandoah this year and expecting her first child in December. She’s not quite sure how everything will work out, upon her return to work -- not least because her current office is in the library, where quiet is at a premium. But she said she’s looking forward to having options. 

“This opens up a lot of possibilities for me as a new parent, including coming back to work earlier than I might have otherwise,” she said. “And I think it really helps with keeping employees wanting to stay at Shenandoah, rather than looking elsewhere at other job options. The policies here make me feel good about working in family-friendly atmosphere.” 

Megan Bureau, director of clinical education and assistant professor physical therapy, said Shenandoah’s already a family-friendly place, with an affordable, well-run child-care facility that prioritizes employees’ children for admission, plus kid-friendly events throughout the year. The children in the workplace policy was added too late for her two-year-old son, but no matter: she’s expecting her second child early next month. Her plan is to use Shenandoah’s six-week paid parental leave and a bit of vacation, then ease back into work with her infant until the baby is three months old.

Bureau said she probably could have taken her first child to campus with her -- to office hours, for example -- but having a written policy now makes doing so much easier. Asked if she plans to take her new baby to class with her, Bureau said yes. 

“My perspective is that I worked a long time to get by doctorate, and I think one of the reasons I was successful is that that I saw my mom work full-time, and still allow me to do everything I wanted to do,” she said. “So having a family and being a great parent doesn’t mean sacrificing who you are as a professional, it’s how you balance it. And that even encourages students -- especially in the field of health professions.” 

Bureau also looks forward to having backup for her older son. If there's a problem at day care, for example, she has a place to make him comfortable until a family member can pick him up or she can take him home.

Keasler joked that he wished the university’s new policy evolved from some detailed cost-benefit analysis. But it was far more organic, he said. Still, numerous studies suggest that flexible work policies are key to retaining women in the workplace and reducing lost working hours.

Shenandoah President Tracy Fitzsimmons' twins are now 11 years old and her oldest child is 13. But she brought them all to campus at times, as needed, after she became president in 2008. It's important to her that others may do the same with  their own kids, she said via email.
“I believe that being able to have kids in the workplace, on occasion when necessary, is good for a child’s educational development and for a professor or staff member's peace of mind knowing that their kids are safe and in an inspiring environment," Fitzsimmons said. "At Shenandoah, we talk about being a university family, and families help each other out when other childcare options fall through.” 

Looking ahead, Keasler said it’s “human nature” to push boundaries and that he might have to rein in any extreme interpretation of the policy. But he said he personally would have been “tickled” to bring his own daughters in to work with him, if he’d been able when they were young. And he’s quite sure his colleagues would have enjoyed it, too, he said. 

The idea, he added, “is very Shenandoah.”


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