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The Littlest Cubicle Warriors

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It’s 8:30 a.m. and Benjamin Gilbertson is restless. He gurgles, legs kicking, as his mom, Jessica Gilbertson, tickles his belly and plays peekaboo until she puts the 3-month-old in a crib for a nap. Then Jessica settles in at her desk to answer e-mails and return calls—just like her colleagues in the cubicles next door.

Welcome to babies in the workplace, a trend gaining momentum with more than 100 companies in 33 states setting up programs—half in the last three years. The cons? Squalling babies can deter productivity. The pros: improved morale for new parents uneasy about leaving their kids behind when they return to work. Experts like UC Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik believe the practice improves family bonding. “No question, this is great for parents and babies,” says Gopnik. “In most places and time, work and home were all put together. It’s how we were designed.”

Carla Moquin, founder of Parenting in the Workplace Institute, says companies with well-defined expectations—making babies leave when they are too active or noisy, signing liability waivers and instituting a grievance process—can keep both workers and employers satisfied. At the North Dakota Department of Health (NDDoH) in Bismarck—where Gilbertson, 27, tackles her program-coordinator duties as Benjamin sleeps nearby—babies age out at 6 months. Carleen Scherr, an administrative assistant, recalls one time when a baby started screaming while she was on the phone. “I was worried what the person would think,” she says. But for Gilbertson, who came back early from leave after having Benjamin, the baby-to-work option brings fewer worries and helps financially. “It was good for me and the baby,” she says.

Another true believer is Cathy Weatherford, CEO of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners in Kansas City, Mo., who set up a work-babies program there in 1998. She says they have never had a formal grievance from the 500 staffers—despite babies who have thrown up on papers and bellowed in meetings—and turnover among mothers has dropped significantly. Now, 78 babies later, she says, “50 to 60 percent [productivity] is better than having the office vacant for three to four months of maternity leave.”

But for Greta deJong, a Salt Lake City magazine publisher, the premise was better than the practice. She admits her staff is small and that she didn’t have a formal policy in place, allowing toddlers as well as pets to roam free. “It was a joy for us, but productivity took it in the shorts,” she says. Polly Mottonen, art director, thinks the final straw came when her 1-year-old son Max unplugged everything from the main computer. “It was shortly after that we were ‘invited’ to work from home,” she says with a chuckle. Adds Diane Olson, a former reporter at the magazine: “The smell was the worst part. We had many stinky diapers.”

Even Weatherford admits that babies are not for every office. “When you first bring them in, some people look at you skeptically and some people are gathered around the beautiful baby. But then everyone goes back to their routines,” she says. And there’s nothing quite like a kid in a cubicle to keep stress levels low. “Nobody can be a grump,” she says, “when you walk past a sleeping baby.”