Take a pet to work or let sleeping dogs lie?

Starting them young: Some believe taking a pet to work is good for productivity. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

IMPROVED productivity and how to achieve it are recurring themes in management. Even so, I was taken aback recently when a friend in human resources told me that she and her fellow managers were putting the final touches to their company’s inaugural pet-friendly workplace policy, which has the explicit objective of improving employee productivity.

The theory, she explained, is that organisations that allow employees to bring their pets to work benefit from reduced stress, improved relationships between co-workers, and a generally happier and more creative workforce.

“Think about the extremely close relationships many people have with their pets,” she urged. “Our pet-friendly policy is part of management’s drive to help employees achieve and maintain work-life balance. Allowing pets in the workplace helps reduce stress and anxiety. People don’t have to worry or feel guilty about leaving their pets home alone, and there is no pressure to rush home and walk their dog at the end of the day.”

What? Dogs beneath desks, cats on the copier, rabbits in reception and parrots perched all over the place? My initial impression was that my friend and her colleagues were barking mad. But before I glibly suggested that they “put that one back in the (dog) box”, I decided to take a closer look.

It did not take much sniffing about to discover that an increasing number of international companies are allowing pets at work. In fact, a national survey conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association shows that nearly one in five companies in the US allow their employees to bring Fluffy to the office.

The study claims that millions of people who participated in the survey report that they are more productive and creative at work when their pets are around. Absenteeism drops, says the report, and people are more willing to work overtime. Other spin-offs described include decreased smoking in the workplace, improve manager-employee relationships, and more effective retention and recruitment.

The perks of workplace pets don’t end there. Businesses claim that pet-friendly policies improve the work environment for all, particularly at organisations where people work long hours and/or sit at computers all day. Pets, they say, encourage people to take more regular breaks to play with or to pet one of the pooches or other creatures in the place. Indeed, internationally at least, pet-friendly workplaces are purportedly wagging corporate tails as cost-free benefits that improve morale and productivity.

With a little more hunting, I tracked down a similar study conducted in South Africa that was published as a social sciences master’s dissertation in 2005. In her abstract, author Yolandé Johnson wrote that, “a pet-friendly workplace could benefit the (country’s) economically active adult population and the organisation”. Her research was conducted among the employees of the Johannesburg branch of advertising agency, Lowe Bull Calvert Pace (LBCP), which – at the time of the study – had an informal pet-friendly policy in place. (Subsequent changes in management and set up rendered the policy unworkable and pets are no longer welcome at the agency.)

“At the time (of the study), our environment was tolerant of pets. I and a number of my colleagues regularly brought our animals to work,” says human resource manager for LBCP, Phyllis Hill. “Mostly, it was great and genuinely seemed to make things happier and more relaxed. One guy even brought his pet snake to work… yeah, if I remember correctly, that freaked some people out.”

A snake in the office? Nothing usual about that, is there? And, like me, you might have worked alongside a number of rats too.

(This article was first published as my If The Hat Fits column in the November 2007 edition of Management Review, which was published by Business Day.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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