Dogs in the office? Paw-sible. Pet ownership soared during the pandemic and workplaces are responding to changing employee needs

Who let the dogs in?

In-person work is back at many GTA offices and employers are responding to shifting needs in the workplace. A significant change in the pandemic was that a whopping 10 per cent of Canadians got pets between June 2020 and June 2021.

To offer compelling incentives to existing workers and prospective employees alike, more offices are allowing pets, primarily dogs, into the office.

The pros are simple: it’s comforting to have pets in the office and gives owners peace of mind; it can attract more talent to the workplace and offers a welcoming environment, said Souha R. Ezzedeen, associate professor at York University’s School of Human Resource Management.

“Research shows that over the course of a day anxiety increases when a pet is left at home,” she said.

But the cons are also apparent. In an open-concept office there are fewer boundaries; it can be distracting if the pet isn’t well trained or is more energetic; it can be difficult for those with allergies (pet-free zones need to be created) and certain religious beliefs make it uncomfortable for some.

“There are different ways to be pet-friendly. It might not involve dogs at work, but having more flexible hours so owners can take their dogs for walks or maybe having a doggy daycare on site,” Ezzedeen said.

She said one-third of people who acquired a pet during the pandemic were first-time pet owners, with the predominant demographic being millennials.

“Millennials will be the dominant generation in the workplace. At the very least, now higher-ups have awareness that pets are important to their employees and responding to that need isn’t going to be a fad,” she said.

Mark Bordo, CEO of Vetster, a veterinary telehealth platform, said during the pandemic he would come into the office with his dog Riley, while employees continued to work from home. Over time, more people brought their dogs to the office after strict guidelines were outlined.

“It’s the employee’s responsibility to have a well-behaved dog,” he said. If the dog is disruptive it can’t come to the office.

Bordo realized after working from home for two years that separation anxiety between pets and owners had increased. Because the company focuses on pet health it was a no-brainer to help pet owners in the office. The company also provides other perks like vet expense compensation.

“It’s important to be inclusive of pet parents going through these transitions, one being the return to in-person work. It also just gives companies a competitive advantage in today’s difficult work landscape,” he said.

However, Bordo stressed that a pet-friendly office isn’t for every workplace. Having animals in the office can be counterproductive, causing employees to find work elsewhere.

A recent survey from OnePoll found that six in 10 pet owners — of the 3,000 surveyed in North America — left a job to find a workplace that was more pet-friendly.

And seven in 10 pet owners were willing to take a pay cut in favor of a pet-friendly office. Thirty-nine per cent said having their pets with them helps avoid burnout.

Becca Lo, people and culture manager at ACE Beverage Group, said the office was pet-friendly pre-pandemic and will continue to be post-pandemic.

“In the last two years, people’s lifestyle changed, so transitioning back to in-person work will be difficult and we need to take a more compassionate approach,” she said.

Employees can bring their dogs to the office, but the flexible work hours also allow for walks and trips to the vet.

At tech company Hypercontext, three of the five employees had dogs when the company first opened. Because pets are a “huge part of people’s lives” bringing animals felt like a natural addition to the office, said CEO Brennan McEachran.

“It can be heartbreaking leaving your pet behind and it occupies your thoughts,” he said. “Taking your dog for walks is a productivity gain and it creates a more social environment at work, often acting as an icebreaker.”

Strict rules are in place, as not every employee loves animals, McEachran said. Dogs are kept on leashes and a three-bark strike is in place. If a dog barks more, the owner needs to take it home for the day.

“Because of these two rules, people who don’t have pets become indifferent to them being there.”

But there’s a tradeoff, he said. Being inclusive of pet owners also excludes those who don’t have pets. Being up front with prospective workers is necessary to ensure everyone is comfortable with a pet-friendly office.

Michael Halinski, associate professor of organizational behavior at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management, said more organizations will offer pet-friendly spaces and it will be a trend going forward, though it might be short-lived.

“Perks like this are offered to get people back into the office, but then frowned upon or shunned away over time,” he said. “It’s definitely reactive to employees not wanting to come back to the office.”

Halinski said offices should focus on a hybrid model to retain staff. Offering pet-friendly spaces shouldn’t be the conversation. It’s about what employers can do to be more supportive of employees.

“It shouldn’t be, how do we bring people back to the office? But more so, how do we manage people in a hybrid environment? That’s the key difference.”

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