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When the workplace has to babysit

Chris Wolfe suffers from a classic modern-day dilemma. There are five people in his household, and on weekdays, four of them go to different places, in opposite directions and at staggered times.
/ Source: Forbes

Chris Wolfe suffers from a classic modern-day dilemma. There are five people in his household, and on weekdays, four of them go to different places, in opposite directions and at staggered times.

After dropping his son off at school, he has an hour until his two daughters go to theirs. It's a logistical juggernaut that Wolfe and his wife managed to solve: Wolfe takes his 3- and 6-year-old daughters to work with him for about 40 minutes before driving them to school at 8 a.m.

This is one option for parents who are part of a generation that believes their professional and family lives are equal in importance. While most medium and large companies frown upon employees bringing children to the office, they do recognize the need to support parents when such situations arise. To accommodate their employees, they are stepping in and providing ways for parents to maintain a balance.

At some companies, that means allowing — even encouraging — parents to telecommute if their kid is sick or on vacation from school. At others, they provide "emergency" daycare if a parent's regular provider falls through. And though they don't want kids running around the office during busy portions of the workday, many companies set aside special days to invite employees' children in to see the office.

"Flexibility is the major way companies are responding to changing values in the workforce," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Family and Work Institute. "Employers are seeing it as a way to recruit and retain the best employees. There's a lot of creativity among companies. It's not one-size-fits-all."

Galinsky points to a program at the consulting firm Accenture called "future leave." Employees who have worked at the company for a year are able to take up to three months off and continue to be paid out of salary they have "banked" in advance; or, they can choose to take the time off unpaid.

Chris Wolfe sees his scenario as a win-win situation. It demystifies the office for his kids, and he gets to spend quality time with them, going over homework and watching them do artwork. Their presence doesn't disturb his colleagues, because it's so early that not many people have arrived at work.

Employers must also be conscious of possible liabilities. At the headquarters of travel company Orbitz Worldwide in downtown Chicago, for example, there are six sets of stairs, prime ground for a child to tumble down. One set even opens right onto a busy city street.

"You need to worry about your facility's insurance if a child falls down the stairs or jumps off the conference room table and is injured," says Kathy Andreasen, senior vice president of human resources for Orbitz Worldwide.

But most parents will say it's important for kids to understand more about adults' daily lives, because it explains where they go while their kids are at school or in daycare. Not to mention that kids are always looking for clues as to what goes on in their parents' lives when they're not with them.

It can also help them set professional goals, even if their own work years are a long way off.

Wolfe and his daughters exemplify this concept. "It means the office is not some mysterious place I go to," says Wolfe, a partner in the tax division of Haynes and Boone's Houston office. "I'm able to spend time with them, and they understand and get comfortable with what I do."

Other companies think that's important, too. That's why accounting firm KPMG's New Jersey office recently held a Baby Day for all the kids that were born in the past year. Over 50 babies attended, all under 2 years old. The kids had a musical program with a teacher, and parents shared tips on how to manage work and family life.

"We want to make sure families feel connected to KPMG," says Barbara Wankoff, national director of workplace solutions at KPMG.

She says that every once in a while, you'll see a child sitting in someone's office drawing a picture or playing on a computer. While they don't "throw the kids out the door" they do encourage employees to use the backup child-care they provide.

At KPMG, about 2,000 parents have used the backup care in the past five months. The service came about after the firm found that child-care breaks down six to eight times per year per family. They offer parents 20 backup-care days each in which they can drop their children off at a daycare facility or have someone watch them at home.

Microsoft offers a similar option. Kids can go to the backup care if there is a school holiday or snow day, or if there are extenuating circumstances.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal News.)

There's also been a genuine shift in the way managers feel about employees working from home. Galinsky says about 38 percent of people telecommute on a regular basis. That's why Orbitz Worldwide gives all its employees BlackBerrys and laptops. Kids are rarely seen in the office because parents are encouraged to work from home if there's a child-care issue.

Orbitz also has a family day in which kids and spouses are invited into the office. There's plenty of entertainment provided, such as arts and crafts and a clown. "Everybody wants their kids to see where mom and dad work," says Kathy Andreasen.

But just remember: When other employees start giving you dirty looks, it's time to work from home.