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The politics of pets in the workplace

Having pets at work seems to be more common than not these days, but companies need to make sure they’re accommodating humans too.

By Mat Luschek

More and more tech companies are offering pet-friendly workplaces on their list of perks.

But why, and is it a good idea?

A study by the Virginia Commonwealth University found that when people had their pets around during the workday, they had much lower stress levels than those who had to leave their furry friends at home.

"There might be a benefit here," Randolph Barker, lead author of the VCU study, says. "It's a low cost wellness benefit, and it could be a recruiting opportunity."

The study shows employees who brought their pets to the workplace experienced an 11% drop in stress levels, while those who were forced to leave their pets at home had 70% rise in stress levels.

Rocky, a terrier, hangs out by owner Lindsey Hansen’s desk at Eventbrite HQ in San Francisco.

Rocky, a terrier, hangs out by owner Lindsey Hansen’s desk at Eventbrite HQ in San Francisco.

The ability to bring pets to work relieves the owner of worries surrounding the pet, like getting home on time to feed them, walk them or even making time to play.

There’s also proof that animals help relieve stress in other ways as well.

According to studies, employees in pet-friendly workplaces have proven to be happier, friendly, more creative and co-operate better than non-pet offices.Central Michigan University found that employees at dog-friendly workplaces, collaborated and trusted each other more. All of these things help create a more efficient, productive culture.

Statistics show that 76% of the pets brought to the office are dogs, followed by cats at 15% and other small creatures fill in the remainder.

Not surprisingly, many of the companies who allow pets are, well, companies in the business of pets. Companies like Purina, Rover.com and Petplan are happy to have your pets show up for work. But also many successful non-animal-related companies are opening the door to four-legged visitors, like Glassdoor, Indiegogo, Google, Pinterest and Eventbrite, among others.

“I love that I can bring my dog to work and know that he loves it at Eventbrite too,” one Eventbrite employee tells Glassdoor in an article.

Mike the dog chills near Steven Huang’s workspace at Culture Amp.

Mike the dog chills near Steven Huang’s workspace at Culture Amp.

Eventbrite’s pets, or barklings as they’re called, have been a big part of the company’s culture from the beginning. So when it was time to move to a larger office, negotiating animals was of high importance.

“When we were looking for our new HQ, we had a handful of requirements that were non-negotiable: one of which was being able to bring dogs to the office, because the barklings are such a huge part of our culture here at Eventbrite,” says Sara Groton, Vendor Management Coordinator at Eventbrite. “We almost had to pass on this space because we are in the UOP Dental School building, and they weren’t going to allow us to be dog friendly. I will never forget when Julia Hartz (co-founder and president) told us about her two and half hour long meeting with the board of UOP solely to negotiate this policy. She is very persuasive! They compromised, and now we are allowed to have 5 dogs per day in the Briteland.”

Google’s Code of Conduct is a bit more specific regarding their pet policy, being slightly dog-biased:

"Google’s affection for our canine friends is an integral facet of our corporate culture. We like cats, but we’re a dog company, so as a general rule we feel cats visiting our offices would be fairly stressed out."

With all these companies (and more) adopting open-door pet policies, are there any downsides to pets in the workplace?

While many enjoy having an animal around, there are also many who don’t. Some people have health conditions that make being near animals a physically unbearable experience, and some have other fears.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of people with allergies have allergic reactions to cats and dogs. Sniffling and itchy eyes can make for a rather unproductive workday for anyone suffering from pet-related allergies.

Other people simply do not feel comfortable around certain animals. Perhaps a person was attacked or bitten by a dog at one point in life. A dog in the workplace could be considered a trigger to that traumatic experience for the person.

“Having your dog hang around you all day while you're unavailable to give him/her the attention they deserve isn't really fair,” Gregory Ciotti, marketing director at Help Scout, says in an article. “It’s also unfair to assume that all of your co-workers are comfortable having your pet around all day, let alone the distractions they might cause.”

It's true that some places have found pets to be more of a distraction than agents of inspiration and creativity.

Nixie, a barkling at Eventbrite, is anxious to show off her space and toys.

Nixie, a barkling at Eventbrite, is anxious to show off her space and toys.

Shreyans Parekh, director of business development and marketing for Koyal Wholesale, also found pets in the workplace did not help with productivity or creativity at all.

“We ran an experiment allowing dogs at work to lower stress levels and increase productivity,” says Parekh, adding, “After four months, we eliminated it. Productivity, quarterly numbers, and error rates did not improve with the pets being present - in fact, [they] dropped during some weeks.”

And productivity may not be the only thing dogs take a bite out of.

One must consider the liabilities of a pet injuring someone. In the end, it’s the owner and possibly the business, who will get the letter from a lawyer if a dog bites a customer or a cat scratches a co-worker. Other lawsuits could arise from an employee who suffers an allergic reaction, after being forced to work in an environment with an animal.

These are all things to consider when drawing up a pet policy for the workplace, and some places have developed ways to make it all work. Knowing your company’s culture will certainly play a part in deciding whether or not a pet-friendly environment is right for you.

“Most of the rules will be common sense, but paying serious attention to proper office etiquette is critical,” says Dr. Mallary Tytel, president and founder of Healthy Workplaces, LLC.

Beatrice accompanies owner Michael Mansour to his data science classes at Galvanize. Beatrice is a retired breeder from the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in San Raphael.

Beatrice accompanies owner Michael Mansour to his data science classes at Galvanize. Beatrice is a retired breeder from the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in San Raphael.

“We developed and tweaked our office pet rules to create a safe and productive environment for both employees and pets,” says Darryl Rawlings, founder and CEO of Trupanion, a pet insurance company based in Seattle, Washington. “We have a designated Pet Team of employees, including those with veterinary clinic and pet care facility experience, who provide guidance and review incidents. Employees at Trupanion have a clear understanding of our office pet rules which apply equally to everyone from interns to executives.”