Even before Bec Burtill’s baby daughter was born, the 26-year-old mother was frantically searching for childcare so she could return to work.
“I’ve been on a waitlist since I was six months’ pregnant in so many different spots,” she said.
It was Ms Burtill’s boss who threw a lifeline, by offering the option of bringing her daughter to work.
“I honestly thought they were kidding,” she said.
It’s now been four months since the Mackay mum returned to part-time sales work in North Queensland.
And so far, so good.
“I have a set-up … a little play centre, a portacot, toys … that just permanently stay there,” Ms Burtill said.
“I guess it’s just like a normal workday [although] some restrictions would be probably nap times and feed times.”
Small businesses like the one where Ms Burtill works have had to adapt and be flexible for some time, according to the Small Business Association of Australia (SBAA).
“Provided the boss can accommodate flexibility in the workplace, you will find they are the most obliging,” said SBAA founder and chief executive Anne Nalder.
“Childcare, where available, is expensive and in a number of cases, employees would rather not work as they are losing money.”
‘I don’t see why not’
A family-run funeral home in Mackay has also hatched a plan to support mothers returning to the workforce by offering flexible childcare arrangements.
“As long as they can answer phones and do everything, I don’t see why not,” funeral director Ashlee Sorensen said.
Ms Sorensen said she was inspired by countless social media posts by parents discussing their struggles to get their young children into childcare, amid long wait times and national workforce shortages.
“[We thought,] ‘Why don’t we give someone an opportunity to try it out and bring their bub?’” she said.
Recruitment for a part-time role is underway and Ms Sorensen said she’d received multiple applications.
“I hope it changes someone’s life for the better,” she said.
‘Win-win for everybody’
In Australian workplaces, however, this approach remains an exception due to factors including health and safety, productivity and child safety.
Julia Richardson from Curtin University’s faculty of business and law said that looking after children in the workplace was more common overseas.
“In Europe, it’s a big thing, particularly in Scandinavian countries, and increasingly in the UK and France,” Professor Richardson said.
“It’s about being able to tap into the labour market to access more human talent.”
Professor Richardson said office spaces could easily be transformed to accommodate children if required, but it was something that called for careful management.
“If you’ve got children running around there, that can actually be quite disturbing for other employees,” she said.
“I think it’s really an important trend and … a win-win for everybody — provided it’s done correctly.”
Paul Harpur, an associate professor from the University of Queensland’s School of Law, agreed offices were the most suitable workplaces to integrate children.
“Having a non-employee at your workplaces is always going to be a risk, but it’s a manageable risk,” Dr Harpur said.
“The idea of letting people have children at work where it’s safe to do so … it’s really good because it opens up opportunity for more people to get back into work.”
But it comes with a caveat.
Rachael Potter from the University of South Australia said flexible working arrangements could be a double-edged sword.
“If you bring a child to work, you’re adding to the workload of that person and causing a lot of role conflict where they’re having to juggle caring for a child in the workplace,” Dr Potter said.
“And I say that out of concern for the person bringing the child in, and how they will be feeling and being pulled in multiple directions.”
It’s an issue on Ms Burtill’s mind too.
“Because it’s getting more difficult to have her at work … she’s on the move and standing … [and] it’s going to get even more difficult as she gets older,” Ms Burtill said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not an ideal situation,” she said.
“Hopefully [childcare] is not too far away.”