Bringing babies into the workplace
Weighing up whether to return to work after the birth of a child can be a difficult dilemma for parents, particularly when nursery costs in some parts of the UK are rising more than twice as fast as family incomes.
The Daycare Trust charity has just launched a consultation into how difficult it is to find the right flexible and affordable childcare amid fears that higher costs are making more mothers think twice about going back to their jobs.
One firm in Tamworth, Staffordshire, has been so anxious not to lose valued staff that it has been allowing babies and toddlers into the office on trial days, while their parents work.
With their babies on their hips and wearing headsets, telesales consultants for Officebroker.com have been trying to win clients and keep their little ones happy at the same time.
The scheme is growing in popularity in the US, where most states do not offer paid statutory maternity leave and mothers return to work much earlier.
With so many of his staff either on maternity leave or planning to start a family, Jim Venables, managing director of Officebroker.com, thought allowing parents to look after their babies at work was worth a trial.
''We find it difficult to replace mothers who are taking maternity leave, as well as those who choose not to come back to work," he says.
"It's a real problem for us and I am sure for thousands of other companies across the UK. So looking into alternatives or ways to support parents is always high on our agenda."Office 'toys'
What was not on the agenda was the amount of dribble left on headphones, mouse mats and telephone wires at the end of the day.
With babies aged between four and 16 months on the sales floor, office equipment became teething toys, and colleagues became babysitters.
Telesales consultant Rachel Lapins attempts to make calls to customers while jiggling four-month-old Finlay on her knee.
''It is a bit difficult with my role, to be honest. I have had a few conversations and made a few inquiries while he was sitting on my lap," she says.
"When he goes to sleep I can make a few more calls and get an hour's solid work in. If he's in a good mood I think it's generally fine. But if Finlay's in a bad mood it could potentially be difficult.''Emergency solution
While Rachel settles Finlay to sleep to the sound of ringing telephones, Fiona Spruce, the training manager, talks through staff development plans, while nine-month-old daughter Grace tries to chew a calculator.
''My job is certainly more flexible. I can't work to my full capacity but it's not been as disruptive as I first thought," she says.
"I don't think I would want to bring her in every day, but as an emergency solution, if there was a childcare crisis, it would be great to have the office as an option.''
But for Dean Ridsill, another sales consultant, bringing in one-year-old Harry to the office was an experience he will not be repeating.
''He was crawling around everywhere, trying to pull down wires, while I was trying to have conversations on the phone," he explains.
"My colleagues helped out, and it was good for team-building I suppose, but he won't be coming in again."
The company may continue to allow younger babies in for odd days to help parents stay in touch during their maternity or paternity leave.
But it is unlikely to be taken up as a long-term childcare solution.
The babies are just too distracting and the office equipment would not last long.