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The Benefits of a Pet-Friendly Workplace

A dog sits in front of a desk with a tennis ball.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Harvard Business Review to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Managers and organizational leaders are currently exploring the best ways to conduct in-person and hybrid work, striving to make the office as inviting as possible while leveraging in-office time for collaborative activities. In this moment of reflection about when, where and how work should be done, it's an opportune time to explore out-of-the-box ideas, such as your office pet policy.

Today, 66 percent of American households include a pet. The numbers are even higher for millennials and Gen-Zs. Almost one in five families added a pet during the pandemic shutdown. Over the past three years, employees have happily settled into work arrangements that involve their four-legged companions: snuggling up during a Zoom call or going on a mid-afternoon walk.

Force employees to pick between their pet and returning to the office and you may not like their choice. One study highlighted intense feelings of guilt and job dissatisfaction among veterinary nurses most bonded to their own pets when forced to separate. Indeed, surveys suggest that an increasing number of employees plan not only their workday routines but also their career decisions with their pets in mind. Online discussion forums feature many a confessional like this one from The Dodo: "I left my full-time job in Chicago to spend more time with Cody—and I have no regrets."

In contrast, welcoming pets has tangible benefits. Studies in diverse settings—traditional offices but also universities, prisons, hospitals and courthouses—demonstrate that the presence of animals increases employee commitment and career satisfaction and reduces turnover intentions. These positive effects hold even for employees who have no pets or do not actively interact with animals at work. Why? Because pet-friendly policies are seen as evidence that organizations prioritize employee well-being. For this reason, job seekers also prefer pet-friendly workplaces. Welcoming pets can help attract and retain the employees you wish to bring back to the office. 

In-Office Pets Enhance Workplace Well-Being

In academic and U.S. national surveys alike, the majority of employees express beliefs that pets contribute to a more pleasant and social work environment. They are on to something. Various studies we analyzed found that the mere presence of animals provides employees comfort, buffers against stress, enhances work engagement and improves work-life quality. For instance, in one study, the presence of facility dogs in hospitals was associated with increased employee sense of accomplishment, positive job attitudes and greater mental health.

Most surprising was the mounting evidence that pets function as a social lubricant and conduit for collaboration. In interviews, employees describe pet-friendly workplaces as facilitating better communication and information-sharing and contributing to coworker bonding and friendships. This seems to be the case because pets increase employee interactions, reduce feelings of isolation and serve as the catalyst for fruitful conversations. Perhaps you can relate if you've ever stopped by a colleague's cubicle to pet a visiting dog and found yourself in serendipitous chats. In one series of lab experiments, psychologists found that participants working on decision-making tasks in the company of a dog (versus a dog's absence) rated their teams as more friendly and attentive, which increased their subsequent cooperation and interpersonal trust.

Companion animals play an especially crucial role for employees who have chronic health problems, disabilities and mental health challenges, providing them with nonjudgmental companionship, opening up opportunities for social interaction and enhancing their sense of independence. As a side note, this is also (if not more so) true for service animals, who, of course, fall into a legal class of their own. In short, welcoming pets can make the office a more social and inclusive place, key conditions to foster creative collaboration.

The Challenges of an Inclusive Workplace Pet Policy

To be sure, a documented minority of employees view pet-friendly workplaces as unprofessional, unclean or unsafe. Objections range from cultural and religious traditions; past encounters and phobias; health, hygiene or allergy concerns; or simply personal preference.  Even employees who like the idea will sour on a pet-friendly workplace when the reality involves sharing their space with noisy, disruptive or aggressive animals. As one Redditor wrote: "I used to work in a WeWork and we'd have our workspace door open for ventilation—I lost count of the amount of time someone's dog from elsewhere on that floor came bounding in and disrupted everyone. I mean I like dogs so I was amused at a soppy old boxer begging for attention, but it's just not appropriate in a workplace."

These concerns multiply in organizations where employees frequently interact with outside stakeholders, such as business clients, contractors and consumers. Office Labradors, coffee shop kitties, bodega cats and even barbershop roosters have all been praised for improving customer mood, but we must be mindful that these outcomes may not generalize elsewhere.

While some people who aren't comfortable with pets in the office express their concerns freely, many may not. Conflicting inquiries for confidential advice from both those who favor and those who oppose office pets have been posted to for years. One study sought to understand what to do about this tension by analyzing five organizations that had instituted dog-friendly policies within three months to 20 years ago. They found that harmonious co-existence, as well as acceptance by those who would prefer the office remain pet-free, is difficult but possible when three criteria are met. Employees must have sufficient job autonomy; for example, the agency to take their dog out when it needs a break or to distance themselves from a bothersome pet. There must also be a culture of open and respectful communication, so no one suffers in silence. Finally, employees must all buy into a "trial-and-error mentality" and be willing to update any agreements as needed.

Practical Guidance as You Form Your Pet Policy

As organizations experiment with hybrid work arrangements or a gradual return to the office, the time is ripe to implement a successful pet policy. Let us highlight some important considerations:

Understand the unique needs of your workplace and all stakeholders.

Be clear about when, where and which animals are welcome, owner responsibilities and how to handle infractions. Extensive resources are available. For instance, we now know that specific breed bans are ineffective and do not improve safety. Instead, it is best to implement behavioral-based guidelines (i.e., don't ban Dobermans; ban disruptive dogs).

Consider local and legal requirements.

As one Redditor joked, "no Burmese pythons in the lobby." Review liability for accidents, specify hygienic requirements of areas such as cafeterias, and communicate all this to employees. Again, you don't have to go it alone. Insights are readily available from industries like hospitality and air travel that have already made the jump to welcoming certain companion animals. Hilton offers ideas of what supplies to keep on hand for accidents while the Department of Transportation has addressed signage and safety questions. Exemplary guidelines can be found in the Pets Work at Work toolkit.

Start off small and pilot.

Limit pets to certain days of the week or select spaces to respect the needs of those with concerns to ease the transition to the office. Be flexible and open to feedback from all involved. For managers with limited bandwidth, employee resource groups dedicated to pets (e.g., the Doogler Group at Google, or even participants in a pets Slack channel), can be a great ally in this effort.

Anticipate that other requests may come up.

Our emphasis has been on bringing pets into the office. Managers should be aware, however, that this may open the door to other pet-friendly considerations. Pet owners may lobby for hybrid work arrangements and non-office days with pets that cannot come to the office (something researchers already endorse for deep thought and non-collaborative projects). Those with an injured, lost or aging pet may request time off to care or grieve for their four-legged family member. Younger employees, who increasingly own pets but delay having children, may lobby to expand benefits (e.g., negotiating a group rate for pet insurance). All may offer organizations a competitive edge but come at a cost.

A diverse and increasing number of workplaces are considering welcoming companion animals. The majority of employees, whether pet owners or not, are on board and seem to benefit from enhanced workplace culture and quality of life. A minority, however, have reasonable concerns. So, consider all the documented benefits and challenges of pet policies as you consider the shape of your in-person and hybrid workplaces going forward.

Shawn X. Quan is a doctoral student in management at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business. Her research focuses on how nonwork factors, including social class and extracurricular activities, impact employee's work. Her four-legged canine companion is named Popcorn. Kira Schabram is an assistant professor at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business and the Evert McCabe Endowed Fellow in Private Enterprise. She studies ways to maximize employee sustainability and shares her home with two cats and countless foster pets. 

This article is adapted from Harvard Business Review with permission. ©2023. All rights reserved.


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