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Bringing your pet to work: the good, the bad, and the nitty-gritty

Studies show bringing your furry friend to work might perk up the office ambience. But before okaying the initiative, make sure you’ve covered all your bases.

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Businesswoman sitting at desk, looking at female colleague playing with dog, while in a office environment Research shows that bringing a pet to work can boost employee morale, reduce stress levels, increase job satisfaction and comradery among your staff. (Getty Images)

Lucy loves going to work. Almost every business day, the two-and-a-half-year-old Bernedoodle (Bernese mountain dog mix) and her owner, Gregory Sacks, walk the short commute from their home to the headquarters of Trufflepig, a custom trip-planning company in Toronto that Sacks founded 15 years ago. Once there, Lucy greets the 17 staff members and settles in for a long lounge in her bed under Sacks’ desk. Every so often, she’ll make the rounds, enthusiastically accepting a treat or two from the multiple dog lovers in the company. And sometimes, just for fun, she’ll have a good scrabble with Willett, one of the other two dogs in the office.

Like Lucy, Sacks is very happy with his workplace arrangement. For him, bringing his four-legged pet to work is not only a great way to combine his morning dog walk with his daily commute; it also brings a casual, friendly atmosphere to the office that is difficult to capture in any other way. “The staff all love Lucy,” he says. “We’re still doing serious work but it’s nice to have the energy of a dog in here. And since the office is open concept, it reinforces the feeling that you’re working at home.”

A HOST OF BENEFITS

Sacks isn’t just a lucky CEO and pet owner whose worldview has been shaped by his own experience. Research shows that bringing a pet to work can bring a whole host of benefits. One study, for example, found that employees who took their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels throughout the work day and had a more positive perception of their employer, along with higher levels of job satisfaction. Another found that a pet-friendly workplace boosts productivity and encourages interaction between people.

These connections have certainly not been lost on the corporate world. In the U.S., behemoths such as Amazon and Google have pet-friendly policies, as do a number of other companies such as Nestle Purina and Ticketmaster. Some—including BrewDog, a craft brewer in Columbus, Ohio—are even offering up to a week of paid time off for new pet owners, known as “pawternity” leave.

In Canada, it’s unknown how many employers allow animals in the workplace. Still, more people are bringing pets, specifically dogs, to work. According to the Canadian Animal Health Institute, approximately 41 per cent of Canadian households had at least one dog in 2018, and 38 per cent had at least one cat. So at least some of those owners would likely welcome a pet-friendly office.

At the moment, companies ranging from Hootsuite and Electronic Arts to Mars, a food manufacturer based in Bolton, Ont., have already “gone to the dogs.” Mars even has a courtyard at its headquarters where canines can run around and play. (Some workplaces and hospitals that do not have dogs on site full time sometimes employ therapy dogs to come for visits.)

A RESOUNDING SUCCESS

At Hootsuite, dog friendliness is tightly woven into the company’s overall ethos. Not only does the social media powerhouse have 93 registered dogs across its Vancouver offices (about 17 to 18 per cent of employees); it also boasts an Instagram profile, as well as hashtags—#hootdogs and #hootsuitelife.

If staff comments are any indication, the company’s policy has been a huge success. As CFO Greg Twinney puts it, “Our four-legged friends form a big part of our culture here at Hootsuite. They really add to the laid-back friendly vibe.” He adds that having a dog-friendly policy can be a good way to attract top talent.

Eva Taylor, senior manager, social marketing, agrees. She also thinks having a dog-friendly culture sets a good example for a healthier office by encouraging more walking meetings and opportunities to head outside. And social marketing lead Amanda Wood likes the peace of mind that comes with bringing her dog, Louis, to work. "I don’t have to worry about how long he’s been at home alone, whether he needs to be let outside, or stress about being able to afford doggie daycare,” she says.

Of course, not all office workers are as enamoured as Wood and other dog lovers are with the idea of sharing their space with an animal. According to a recent study, the practice can raise safety issues, including bites and falls—not to speak of phobias and allergic reactions. 

And those issues can have consequences. For example, if an employee reports that they have a severe phobia or allergic reaction when they encounter an animal, that could be regarded as a disability, says Thomas Gorsky, an employment lawyer at Sherrard Kuzz in Toronto. “If you were to disregard that disability and insist on bringing the animal into the premises, you could be running the risk of a human rights violation,” he says. 

office dog sitting on a desk beside a computer When implementing a bring your pet to work’ policy, make sure you consider potential sensitivities including allergies or fears from staff, and make it formal by putting it in writing. (Photo provided)

CREATING A PET-FRIENDLY WORKPLACE

Because of the potential downsides, it’s always advisable to do your due diligence before allowing pets to be in your office space full-time. Here are some tips:

1. Talk to your landlord. Some landlords may prohibit pets. You should check your lease agreement and consult with the landlord before giving any plans the go-ahead, says Gorsky.

2. Consider potential sensitivities. You should canvas the workplace to see if anyone has any issues with pets in the workplace. As Gorsky explains, “If an individual was adamant that they had an allergy to a cat or a dog, and that it would cause significant medical problems, I think the legal conclusion would be pretty clear that you would need to accommodate that employee,” he says. “However, in many cases, it should be possible to find a workaround. Often, it’s a proximity issue. Many buildings have multiple entrances and there are ways for the person to avoid the animal.” (At Trufflepig, for example, one person has allergies but as long as he doesn’t touch the dog, he’s fine.)

3. Do some planning. As Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching, puts it, you need to decide how many pets would be allowed at once, as well as what kinds of pets. “Would it be dogs only, or would people be able to bring in their cats, ferrets or other pets?” 

4. Get it in writing. It’s also a good idea to have a formal policy in place that sets out clear responsibility for any damage or injury, says Chadnick.

For example, Hootsuite assumes no responsibility for pets on the premises and has guidelines specifically stating that “employees are financially responsible for any damage or cleaning to facilities; this includes damage from accidents, excessive pet hair and odor removal as required.” The guidelines also specify that dogs must be six months and older; they must be properly licensed, insured, vaccinated and potty trained. In addition, they must be kept on a leash, stay off the furniture, use a pet-designated elevator, and play in one of the outdoor spaces nearby.

5. Inform potential hires. Once you have a policy in place, it is advisable to inform potential job candidates, says Gorsky. “By letting candidates know of the policy in advance, you can reduce the likelihood of running into problems later. If workarounds are needed, that would be the best time to talk about them as well.”

At Mars, candidates learn about the company’s policy during the interview process. As Chris Hamilton, president of Mars Canada, pointed out in an article on the subject, the company wants people to experience its environment. “So we bring them to the Bolton campus so they can see what it looks like,” he says.

So far, says Hamilton, Mars’ policy has served as a draw for potential candidates—in fact, many have specifically applied for jobs because of it. “It’s amazing how unique and positive the bring-your-pet-to-work policy is and how appealing that is for the right employee,” he adds. 

Gorsky has a similar take. “I think we are seeing a growing number of workplaces that offer a variety of perks for millennial employees, including games and entertainment,” he says. “In that context, I can definitely see a pets-in-the workplace policy becoming a perk—and a much more common one.”