Why more offices are going to the dogs

Pets can reduce stress, managers say. Yet most firms want Fido to stay at home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
Staff of Sermo: 'Maddie' rests at the offices of Sermo, a web company among a small percentage of firms that let employees bring pets to work.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Fetch : Jess Frykholm plays with Maddie and Lily at the offices of Sermo. The company is among a small percentage of firms that let employees bring pets to work.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Laying down on the job: One of Daniel Palestrant’s dachshunds rests on his lap during a meeting at Sermo, a Web company in Cambridge, Mass.

At Sermo, a Web company whose offices resemble a Romper Room for adults – complete with beanbags and arcade machines – finding the CEO is easy. Just look for his dogs. This particular afternoon, Daniel Palestrant's two dachshunds act like draft stoppers outside their master's conference-room door. Mr. Palestrant is something of a Pied Piper for dogs and instituted the office's pet-friendly policy. As such, he loves to see employees playing with Lily, a Yorkshire terrier that treats a pink tennis ball like a homing beacon, or stroking Maddie, a woolly bichon frisé.

"What does it mean to work in a young, fast-growing start-up company? A little bit of chaos. A little bit of cleaning up everybody's mess. And you can't take yourself too seriously," says Palestrant, who founded Sermo as an online community for physicians. "We started finding that people who are most comfortable with dogs around are the one's who gravitated toward the Sermo culture."

For many companies, Friday's ninth annual Take Your Dog to Work Day will be the closest they get to experiencing Sermo's roly-poly atmosphere. Yet pet-friendly workplaces are on the rise. They're part of a broader axis shift: A younger generation is rejecting formal office culture in favor of fun workplaces that are fulfilling. But a wider adoption of the benefit will depend on how companies handle issues relating to allergies and the personal discomfort of some workers.

"There are more companies that are shifting toward offering dog-friendly work policies because they can use that to attract employees," says Cameron Woo, publisher of Bark magazine. "People are realizing that the button-down white shirt and tie office environment that our parents grew up with doesn't have to [continue]."

According to the Society of Human Resource Management's (SHRM) 2007 Benefits Survey, 6 percent of respondents allow employees to bring pets to work, up from 4 percent in 2006. A newly released survey of 1,000 adults by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that 17 percent are permitted to bring pets to the workplace.

Advocates of the policy believe it benefits both employers and employees. People working long days can bring an element of their home life into the workplace, while those who work regular hours needn't get antsy about dashing home to walk the dog. Another plus: Not having to pay for a dog-sitter.

But the biggest gains may be the effect an animal has on the work environment. At Sermo, the reigning philosophy is that the office animals – which include a rabbit and an iguana but, thankfully, no goats – encourage employees to get to know each other as individuals first and foremost.

"We try to break down barriers between people," says Alexandra LaMaster, the company's vice president of talent. "So, when you come into conflict with each other, you resolve that in a better way and you're more honest in a direct manner. The dogs at work is just another way of being more genuine and who you are at work."

The canine companions also offer a more constructive form of stress release than the office Nerf guns. "I'll sit and play with the dogs for a few minutes after a hard meeting," grins Jess Frykholm, whose desk functions as a dog-treat repository.

Tech firms such as Sermo were among the first to turn office cubicles into kennels. Those companies need to innovate, but employees can't be creative if they're unhappy at work, says Alexander Kjerulf, the self-proclaimed "Chief Happiness Officer" and expert on employee relations, speaking via phone from his native Denmark.

For the most part, large pet-friendly companies such as Google, Amazon, and Ben & Jerry's aren't the norm. The SHRM survey found that small companies were more likely to offer the benefit (11 percent), than medium companies (6 percent), or large companies (4 percent). Implementing procedures may simply be too daunting for big businesses. And there's always concern that one of the animals will lash out at an employee, visitor, or client.

It's possible that an employer could be held liable for an attack, just as a landlord can be held responsible if he knew a dog was dangerous and didn't do anything about it, says Mary Randolph, JD, author of Nolo Press's "Every Dog's Legal Guide." But Ms. Randolph says she's unaware of any trial about an attack in the workplace.

Still, that doesn't quell the fears of Kelly Hoffman, an employee at a dog-ridden Web retail firm in Reading, Pa. Ms. Hoffman is so scared of dogs that she wrote "one person's perk is another person's nightmare" on her blog at Talking by phone, Hoffman says the three or four dogs in the small office also make her "feel lousy" because of her allergies. Beyond that, they're a nuisance and reduce productivity because colleagues constantly take the dogs outside for potty breaks. "You're on the phone trying to take a phone order, and all of a sudden there's a loud bark in your ear and you can't hear the customer trying to place the order," she says.

Hoffman fears her job will be on the line if she complains to her boss. Muddying matters: Her office has no formal guidelines other than to keep the animal under control and ensure that it's house-trained.

Policies vary from company to company. Many are thorough and clearly delineated. (Sermo, for instance, has an etiquette memo and stipulates that contract workers can't bring their dogs to work because they'll disrupt the harmony of the established pack.) Others are vague, ad hoc, or not consistently enforced if it happens to be inconvenient to the top dog of an organization, observes Jennifer Fearing, chief economist at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

That was the impetus behind Ms. Fearing's July book, "Creating Dog Friendly Workplaces," which she co-wrote with renowned dog trainer Liz Palika. Fearing used the HSUS's 200-employee offices in Washington as a testing ground for a model process. After a year-and-a-half, they've had no issues with the 35 dogs. Among the many HSUS procedures: an application process, a probation period, and requirements that each cubicle be fitted with a baby gate as well as a green, yellow, or red sign to indicate the degree of a dog's socialization among strangers.

"Dogs went from being in the yard to in our beds. It's too much cognitive dissonance to leave these creatures all alone all day," says Fearing, who saw a need for her book after the HSUS noticed an uptick in inquiries from Human Resource departments. "Companies ought to do this right, and that's what we want to empower them to do."

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