Pets in the Workplace: Not the Cat’s Meow?

Anyone who knows me knows one thing—I’m an animal partisan. When it comes to questions of whether any given situation would be better with animals, my answer is nearly always a resounding “YES, PLEASE!”

So, today, when I came across a post online by Rohan Ayyar arguing the contrary point of view—that there are, indeed, reasons why animals don’t belong in the office, my eyes perked up. I have no intention of changing my view that life would be better with piglets near my work station (with special ventilation measures taken), but I thought I’d entertain the opposing view.

The first point Ayyar makes is we have to be aware of the plight of co-workers with allergies. I feel terrible for them, I really do, but what if we had a non-animals section in the office, similar to the non-smoking sections of restaurants years ago? And the understanding that if you were unfortunate enough to have to include a person in your meeting who doesn’t like having dogs and cats lying on top of him, we would keep the meeting animal-free? That sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it?

Then, Ayyar notes how awful it would be if Fido happened to maim or otherwise injure a visiting sales rep or colleague (maybe one who’s been getting on your nerves a lot lately?). However, I believe precautions can be taken. First, it has to be acknowledged that the vast majority of animals who live with humans as pets are harmless—that’s why they’re able to live with humans in the first place. But if your company is still leery of giving employees the option of bringing their pets in (or turning empty corners of the office into makeshift animal shelters), a structured process requiring approval could be implemented. The employee would have to fill out a detailed form about her pet, with questions related to any prior biting, scratching, or rude sniffing incidents, and would have to sign a legal form stating that as the pet’s owner, she would be held financially and legally responsible for any damage to property or co-worker committed by the animal.

Another point Ayyar makes is that animals are a distraction. I can imagine that’s true because they’re so adorable, who wouldn’t rather watch a puppy pawing at a tennis ball than finish a financial report? But thinking about it from a different angle, you could say with equal truth that animals are an inspiration for fresh thinking. You can only stare at numbers and other minutia on a computer screen for so long without giving your eyes and psyche a break. We can all vouch for the needed psyche break, and now that I write for an optometry magazine, I also can share that it is important for the health of your eyes to follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away from your work station for at least 20 seconds. Having something other than droning co-workers and cubicle walls to refresh your eyes can’t help but be even healthier.

From a creativity- and idea-generation perspective, having an animal to consider in the environment can be a great help. It can even be a training and leadership development booster. You suddenly have more than just your snack, coffee, and cigarette breaks to consider (Fluffy needs to be fed, walked, and preened over), and if you want the animal to behave a certain way, you can’t just yell at him insensitively and expect results. You also can’t just punish; as most with dogs or cats can attest, positive reinforcement works far better than punishment—a principle you’ll find also works with your human colleagues.

I always believed in the potential of animals to make better people, but got a first-hand lesson in this truth in 2008, when for Training, I observed and participated in the Wisdom Horse training program, in which executives and their work teams spend time with horses. They are given tasks to accomplish with the help of the horses. The challenge is getting the horses to work with you rather than against you. Sound familiar? That aggressive, brusque manager who likes directives more than patient give-and-take conversations with employees won’t get far with horses—or dogs (and certainly not cats), for that matter.

It’s true that animals in the workplace requires putting precautions in place and setting ground rules to keep everyone safe and happy, but the improvement to employee thinking, behavior, and even leadership development, far outweighs any inconvenience or danger.

Are pets (and any other animals) in your office a realistic possibility? Why/why not? What would you need to do to make your office pet-friendly? What precautions and protocols would need to be implemented?