Helping Pet Owners—and Their Pets—Cope with the Return to the Office

By Kylie Ora Lobell June 22, 2020
dog begging while man works on computer

​Pets have had the time of their lives over the past few months. During COVID-19 shutdowns, employees working from home had more time than ever to dote on their dogs, cats and other creatures. Additional walks, playtime and affection were spread throughout the day, every day.

Now, as workers are starting to return to the office, pets—and their owners—likely are feeling separation anxiety.

"Leaving behind your pet who has been your co-worker for the past few months is going to be difficult," said Ann Nihil, operations and culture manager at Fracture, a glass-printing company in Alachua, Fla. "For many of us, the added comfort of that soft meow or that slobbery lick on the cheek is going to be missed."

HR can take steps to support both employees and their pets as they separate once again. Here are some ways to help:

Provide Pet Perks

Many employers are constructing Plexiglas barriers, providing hand sanitizer and requiring returning employees to wear masks as part of COVID-19 workplace changes, so it's a tough time to allow pets in the office. Take Your Dog to Work Day is June 26 this year, but few companies may be ready to observe it.

However, said Taryn Pearson, director of HR at PetFirst Pet Insurance in Jeffersonville, Ind., you could "show you appreciate the changes facing workers by introducing pet-related benefits. That's a way of honoring the special relationship they have with their pets."

For instance, companies could provide a small bag of pet treats on the first day back in the office so employees have something to take home to their pets, Pearson said.

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Distribute Pet Tips

To make the transition a little easier, you could provide guidance to the pet owners in your office.

One best practice for pet owners is to simulate going to work before actually making that transition, suggested Dr. Marianne Bailey, owner and veterinarian of Queenstown Veterinary Hospital in Queenstown, Md.

"Start pretending to go to work a few times a week. Set the alarm before bed, get up and shower, do the morning routine with your pet, and then leave for an hour or two. This will help the pet understand when they will be fed, how and when they will get their morning exercise, and what to expect when [the owners] leave," she said.

Bailey also suggested that pet owners increase the amount of time they are gone each day, working up to eight or 10 hours, and to pet-proof their homes in case pets feel separation anxiety. "All of a sudden the basket on the floor that holds blankets may look like a fun chew toy, since you're not home and they are bored," she said. Returning employees "should take some time to pick up around the house and help remove items [pets] may try to play with or destroy."

Nihil recommended that pet owners who relied on dog walkers rehire them or use a pet day care service. They should also acclimate pets "back to their crates for a few hours a day or whatever a pet parent may have done prior to the shared shelter-at-home order."

Offer Flexible Work Hours

Another option to ease the transition is for employers to offer flexible scheduling to returning workers who own pets, said Tom Winter, co-founder and tech recruitment advisor at DevSkiller in New York City.

"That allows them to start with half a day working at the office and the rest from home, so their pet can start getting used to the new routine. Then you can agree to increase it by an hour per day until they are back full time at the office," he advised.

Consider a Pet Policy

If your office can accommodate pets, then you might consider allowing employees to bring them to work.

Start by conducting a survey among employees to determine how they would feel about pets in the office, said Uliana Lysunets, HR manager at KeenEthics in Ukraine. She suggested listening to employees' concerns, analyzing feedback and making a decision on how to implement a pet policy. Keep in mind that there are many types of pets, so state upfront which ones are and aren't allowed in the office, and make sure that employees have a place to walk and feed their pets, as well as a place to leave them during meetings.

Also, every pet policy should state that pets' vaccinations must be up-to-date, and pets must be clean, well-behaved, unaggressive and housebroken, said Karen Oakey, HR director at Fracture.

"On the flip side, the employer should really be mindful of their employees' allergies and openness to animals," Oakey said. "I once had an employee [who was] deathly afraid of dogs."

Pet policies don't have to be permanent. For instance, June 22 marks the start of Take Your Pet to Work Week, so you could let pets come to the office for a day or the entire week.

"Putting a pet-friendly week on the calendar for next year may at least give employees something to look forward to," said Pearson at PetFirst. "It lets them know you care about their pets too."

Figuring Out What Works Best

Many employees may have endured some psychological trauma due to COVID‑19 and the resulting shutdowns, and pets can help them get back on their feet.

"Allowing employees to spend time with their pets is important, especially for those that live alone with their pets," Winter said. "They can be considered family to them and a source of psychological support. So if the pet is stressed and anxious, the owner will also reflect that mindset." 

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