This article is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.
It's growing increasingly common to see pets at work, especially at smaller companies settings in New York City. LinkedIn has 178 results for "dog friendly" jobs in NY, which presumably means they either have a designated "office dog" or multiple employees may bring their dogs in. And dogs do seem to be the winner in this category over, say, a pet hamster. Big names like Google, Mashable, and Amazon have pet-friendly policies that welcome non-assistive companions into the office on a daily basis. Google, for instance, makes plain its preference for dogs and even allegedly has caregivers on staff for those lucky pooches. Amazon’s canines are featured on a dedicated page where visitors are informed that they get dog biscuits at reception desks and have access to doggie-sized water fountains. Smaller companies are following suit by allowing dogs into the workplace (albeit with fewer of those fancy additional perks) seeing the allowance as a non-financial perk that helps generate a perception of work/life friendliness and an acknowledgement of the life commitments of the incoming workforce. The benefits are touted widely: pets help reduce stress and may increase communication and socialization and there is no shortage of research to this effect. But in our rush to welcome pets into the workplace, we may be overlooking the full experience for everyone involved—including our furry friends.
Approximately 60% of Americans own a pet. It's not surprising therefore that there is a cultural shift toward permitting access for pets in spaces that have traditionally been more narrowly defined. There has been a lot of research on the impact that pets have on children, the elderly, the sick, and prisoners. For example, pets may help as an icebreaker for children in therapy; or help the emotional development of children by putting them in a situation where they learn how to care for others. Pets have been shown to help elderly Americans remain social and mobile, and may reduce depression in this population.
Additionally, a growing range of services for pets attests to their importance for many Americans. In New York City there are a number of spas and hotels (i.e., boarding services) that cater specifically to pets, functioning in some regards as a "daycare" where animals are cared for and have an opportunity to socialize with other animals. And New York City is behind the West Coast where services seem to multiply daily. The rise of a National Service Animal Registry—a commercial enterprise where users can pay a fee for a certificate that states their pet is an “emotional support animal”—helps owners bring their pets into places like museums and restaurants where they would otherwise not be allowed. This is not to say that some people do not legitimately need their pets for emotional support, but there has been clear and documented abuse of this system that questions its validity. For example, author Patricia Marx once registered a variety of increasingly ridiculous animals as ESA to see when and where she would be challenged, and found that the instances where there was pushback were few—even when she attempted to take an alpaca on Amtrak.
So what are pets doing in the workplace?
According to one study that surveyed 31 companies in Kentucky, pets in the workplace allow owners to express a bit of their personality. There are three types of organizational symbols that employees may use to personalize these collective spaces: authority symbols, reward symbols, and empathic symbols. These symbols influence how a person perceives the organization. Authority symbols are things like flags and banners, and they signify legitimacy. Reward symbols are things like plaques and they signify accomplishment. Empathic symbols—like plants and artwork—are suggestive overall of warmth and comfort. Pets fall into this last category. There may be fewer opportunities for symbology overall as employers strip down walls in favor of open work stations, so pets help fill this gap. Empathic symbols may encourage more social interaction by providing a neutral field where employees can connect with each other. Psychologically, they convey the perception that someone is approachable and friendly.
When polled about the benefits of pets in the office, participants (n=97 cat owners; n=110 dog owners) reported:
- pets relieved stress (cats = 29%; dogs 21%)
- made the office more friendly (cats = 21%; dogs = 18%)
- provides a positive diversion (cats = 19%; dogs = 9%)
Sixteen percent of cat owners and nineteen percent dog owners reported no benefits.
The drawbacks reported by this group were minimized by approximately half of both cat and dog owners who said there were none. The remaining half cited quality of life issues, including meowing/barking (cats = 25%; dogs = 19%), hair/fur problems (cats = 32%; dogs = 9%), and cleanliness issues (cats = 24%; dogs = 9%).
In another study, it was found that the presence of a companion dog in a group work setting encouraged participants to be more cooperative, communicative, and friendly toward each other than in groups where there was no companion dog. This supports the proposal that pets may help break down barriers to social interaction by providing a pathway to conversation.
While the evidence is suggestive of some positivity, it’s not overwhelming. In an investigation on the stress levels, productivity, and organization perception among people who brought their dogs to work at a service-manufacturing retail company in North Carolina, about half of those bringing their dogs to work reported the dog was important to their productivity, while the remaining half gave a neutral response. The majority of dog owners who did not bring their dogs to work and non-pet owners reported a neutral response as well. In both groups, however, approximately 20% reported that the dog's presence was helpful and 20% reported it was a hindrance to productivity. In other words, the majority of people who had exposure to a pet at the office reported no noticeable effects.
At the end of the day, we may just need to acknowledge that permitting pets in the office is nice thing to do. But there are practicalities that need to be addressed that smaller businesses may be overlooking. How do companies handle individuals with allergies (about 30% of the American population)? Or individuals who are simply uncomfortable with animals due to past traumatic experiences?
In some instances, employers have responded to these questions by having separate work areas, adopting leash rules restricting dogs from roaming the office, or limiting the days that animals may come to work. There may also be prohibitions against animals in communal spaces such as lunch and break rooms, restrooms, and conference rooms.
Are we thinking about the animals themselves? One area that the research rarely seems to address is the pet's response to being a workplace environment. There are obviously situations where pets should not be present: food service operations or manufacturing/factory settings where safety is a concern, for example. But pets may struggle in a normal office environment as well. Barbara J. King, emerita anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, who has spent her career researching on, writing about, and advocating for animals, pointed out in an email to me that the research is biased in our favor. We're thinking about our needs and how our pets help us, but we are not considering what they may need from their environment in these cases. Different animals may have different experiences: "For some outgoing dogs, meeting unfamiliar people in a building with unfamiliar noises and smells will be fine, even welcome excitement; for others more shy, it may be a sensory overload to endure. Individual cats, bunnies, snakes, and other animals we keep as pets will have their own outlooks." King makes an important point about the individuality of our pets that a blanket statement on policy or the absence of a proper policy may overlook: "Animals think and feel as individuals," she wrote. "we shouldn't try to answer in aggregate but rather on a case-by-case basis, just as we would taking into account a human being's constellation of personality traits and needs."
For many parents the growing acceptance of pets at work represent another disparity they need to contend with. Young children are not permitted in the office on a daily basis because presumably they require attention and care that would detract from work, yet pet owners can bring animals in and pause to walk, feed, and play with them. Having pets at work means that pet owners do not need to rush home to tend to their needs, whereas many parents are doing just that—often trying to beat a dreaded daycare overage fee. If companies are meeting the work/life needs of pet owners, what steps are they also taking to meet the needs of working parents?
There are also the general etiquette items that need to be considered. When you visit someone's home and they have a pet, it should be understood that you are entering the pet's domain. If they're allowed on the sofa or the table, then that's permissible within that home and you need to adjust. But in the workplace what are the boundaries for pet access? It's not acceptable to change a child's diaper on a public table, but is it allowable to have a small dog sit on a conference table? Is it okay to have animals on chairs when people may spend a considerable amount on dry-cleaning or have meetings to attend with clients at some point in the day?
For smaller companies who want to support a more pet-friendly environment, it’s important to establish guidelines:
- What qualifications about health and behavior are acceptable?
- Are proof of vaccines required?
- How will you handle animals that are obviously distress?
- Who is responsible for damages or injuries caused by the animal?
- How will grievances be addressed?
- Are any breeds prohibited?
Humans have a long history of living and working with animals but there is an element of choice involved in those interactions. To be absolutely clear, this discussion centers around non-assistive animals—our chosen animal companions—not service animals, who are necessary in many cases for individuals to complete basic tasks. Special accommodations must be made in these cases as mandated by law. With the overall popularity of pets, people who are uncomfortable with animals become a minority and may be subsequently uncomfortable raising concerns. They're pressured into acceptance, and for them, a pet at work is far from a helpful experience. For that reason, if we're going to more frequently open our office to pets, companies should make this clear during recruitment—it could be a deal breaker for a prime candidate, and that's okay, but they should have the information to make an informed decision about their workplace. Similarly, for those smaller companies welcoming pets, it's not a matter of hoping employees simply work it out amongst each other; they need to take an active role in shaping what that means for their workplace.
Are pets permitted in your workplace? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Randolph T. Barker, Janet S. Knisely, Sandra B. Barker, Rachel K. Cobb, Christine M. Schubert, (2012) "Preliminary investigation of employee's dog presence on stress and organizational perceptions", International Journal of Workplace Health Management, Vol. 5 Issue: 1, pp.15-30, doi: 10.1108/17538351211215366
Wells, M., & Perrine, R. (2001). Critters in the cube farm: perceived psychological and organizational effects of pets in the workplace. Journal of occupational health psychology, 6(1), 81.
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