Two events are guaranteed to change an office's culture. One is new leadership. The other is a pregnancy epidemic.
When two or more employees announce pregnancies at around the same time, office wags rush to suggest something is afoot. ("Don't drink from that water cooler! Don't breathe through that air duct!) Really, of course, this situation reflects nothing more than staff demographics and the provision of compensation sufficient to support a family. With more women working and science widening the fertility window, offices increasingly are show rooms of fecundity.
The vision of so much fruitfulness amidst sterile cubicle culture is heartening. Still, simultaneous pregnancies can unsettle office equilibrium. (Here let me pause to establish my philoprogenitive creds. I think babies are swell. As a working mom, I fervently support my ilk in our have-it-all aspirations. Go us.)
Managing absenteeism and multiple maternity leaves is the obvious challenge. Employees may exult at news of a colleague's expanding family, but if their own workloads expand as a result they will--justifiably--complain. Leaders need ways to compensate them or to at least talk them down. Nor do staffing woes disappear along with belly bulges. Even with hours as flexible as Gumby, your best people (male and female) will be yanked from meetings by the occasional daycare drama.
But leaders should also be sensitive to subtler influences. A plethora of pregnancies begets ubiquitous baby talk. Show up in a conference room early and risk walking in on a conversation about breast pumps. Drop by the kitchenette and encounter a clutch of women scanning cereal boxes for folic acid content. Such bonding is nice, particularly when it's between employees who otherwise rarely interact. But those who aren't pregnant or already parents may feel excluded. Worse, the environment becomes toxic for anyone coping with infertility. To forestall staff discomfort, take the mothers-to-be aside and ask them, out of consideration for their colleagues, to keep the chatter to a minimum. If you are uncomfortable with that conversation, delegate it to human resources.
Still, babies are swell (see above) and business leaders should encourage the staffwide celebration of employees' happiness. The trick is to do so without succumbing to nursery culture. I like the approach of Greenleaf Book Group, a publishing company in Austin. Starting two years ago, seven of the company's 19 employees announced pregnancies within nine months of one another, executive vice president Meg La Borde told me recently. La Borde wanted to celebrate, but the prospect of endless traditional showers induced something akin to morning sickness. Instead, she launched a series of evening fetes--Baby's First Cocktail Parties, she calls them. The parties honor the parents-to-be, but everyone else is free to enjoy themselves in grown-up, nonadorable fashion.
No, the expectant mothers don't drink. But those not expecting--including La Borde--do. And they enjoy it. Thus are the cosmic scales leveled, if only for an evening at a time.
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.