When Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer banned remote working at the tech giant, the reaction from staff was frosty. Not because it meant the end of working from home in their pyjamas but because for many parent employees it was an attractive solution to juggling career and family.
Mayer reasoned that it was better for productivity to have all her team working under the same roof. One of the reasons she may have failed to empathise with working parents is that when she had her son, she built a personal nursery in her office.
The nursery may have been exclusively for Mayerâ€™s child but other employers around the world are demonstrating how on-site childcare facilities can be rolled out for all staff and that going the extra mile for employees with families can benefit the company.
Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs opened the City of Londonâ€™s first (and as yet only) on-site corporate office creche. It opened in 2003 to initially offer all employees with children 20 days free childcare a year which can be booked either in advance or on the day if there is an urgent need.
In 2010 they expanded the facility and offered working parents free use of the nursery for four weeks to support transition back to work from parental leave and then full-time paid childcare available for those who say alternative arrangements are challenging.
â€œThere is nothing more stressful than worrying about childcare,â€ explains one female managing director whose son used the facility from six months to three years old. â€œI just couldnâ€™t concentrate on my job if I was worried that my nanny wasnâ€™t feeling well or she didnâ€™t turn up on time. It was incredible to be able to have him there. I knew that he was happy â€“ I could go down any time.â€
Goldman Sachs has rolled out on-site creches in their offices in Tokyo and New York. In locations where they canâ€™t provide a facility they try to find a local nursery that they can subsidise for employees.
The business case for providing access to nursery facilities seems compelling. According to Sally Boyle, a partner and head of Goldman Sachsâ€™ human capital management division internationally, many senior female employees at the company were very keen to come back from maternity leave but were struggling with childcare provision. She realised then that the nursery would be an excellent retention tool.
Carla Moquin, founder of the US-based Parenting in the Workplace Institute, agrees that the biggest benefits for businesses are retention and recruitment. She says flexibility and work-life balance are a huge deciding factor for people choosing a place to work and employees are far more likely to stay loyal to a particular organisation if they feel they are also supported in family life. She claims replacing staff because of family commitments is a huge cost to businesses (more than Â£30,000 according to some estimates), especially if it is a long-term employee who knows the company well and has built important relationships with contacts and clients.
The financial burden of running such a facility means not all businesses can afford to offer these benefits. Nurseries at Londonâ€™s Goldsmiths College and at Royal Mailâ€™s Mount Pleasant sorting office in Farringdon are just two of many workplace creches to be threatened with closure in the past few years. The former was costing the university Â£70,000 a year in subsidies, yet with only 23 places, it only served a very small number of staff.
For businesses which cannot afford on-site creches, could allowing staff to bring their children into the office alongside other colleagues be the answer? Some 200 companies and organisations in the US have a â€œbabies at workâ€ policy, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute. In 2012, UK taxi firm Addison Lee also experimented with the idea. The companyâ€™s head of HR Clare Bishop claimed in an interview with the Working Mums job site that despite an initial drop in productivity, she expected an increase in staff loyalty and retention.
Inevitably there are fears that bringing a baby into the office will be disruptive to not only the parentâ€™s work but also to colleagues. Moquin insists it doesnâ€™t have to be. The most important, she says, is to have a clear structure and formal programme in place from the start. To ensure success, she suggests provisions such as making sure parents agree to respond quickly to any cries and setting a â€œbaby free zoneâ€ for colleagues who find it disturbing. Designating co-workers who are happy to help with childcare responsibilities means the needs of the baby are constantly met. Parents should also formally agree not to let their childcare responsibilities interfere with their ability to do the job.
The Parenting in the Workplace Institute has set up guidelines (pdf) on its website for businesses interested in starting a scheme which advise employers to limit the policy to infants who are not yet mobile and are comfortable in a work environment.
If the business benefits of offering these innovative forms of childcare support are so great, why arenâ€™t more companies getting on board? Moquin claims the biggest barrier is cultural.
â€œThere is a big gap between what people expect is going to happen and what actually happens,â€ she says. â€œSo our biggest hurdle is education â€“ giving these companies the information and ideally convincing them that it works for enough different job types and organisations, and has enough benefits for both the employee and employer, that it is worth it for them to just try.â€
While Yahoo ditched remote working, others see it as the future for childcare. US company gNappies is one example. Although it already successfully runs an on-site nursery for children at its headquarters in Portland, Oregon, it decided to take a different approach to supporting their employees with parental responsibilities when opening a European branch in London.
European head Louise Roper explains that while an on-site nursery is great for staff with babies, it doesnâ€™t help those with older children. She decided to offer her team â€“ all of whom have children aged from one to 16 â€“ the option to work remotely. Staff communicate using an instant messaging technology called Slack and are able to tailor their working day around their childcare commitments.
She says: â€œWe looked at whether we should put in a creche because people kept asking about it â€“ and yet it just didnâ€™t feel like something we needed. We felt we could support parents better by not asking them to make a long commute every day and giving them this freedom.
â€œI was worried at first that things wouldnâ€™t get done because they are all out looking after their children, but it works and everyone is much happier and more willing to do the work in their own time.â€