IT shops let pets come to work
December 23, 1998
by Candee Wilde
(IDG) -- On a long afternoon in the IT department at Burton Snowboards, Reilly sometimes tackles Charley, hoping to lure her into a friendly tussle on the floor.
After that, a little catnap under a desk often is in order.
Jennifer Mincar, director of information technology at Burton, isn't troubled in the least by that behavior among her troops. The most she will do is pat them on the head while they snooze or maybe scratch them behind the ears.
Scratch their ears? Well, that isn't as strange as it may sound. Reilly and Charley are dogs that accompany their owners to work at Burton, a snowboard manufacturer in Burlington, Vt.
Mincar, who doesn't bring a pet to work, says having the two dogs in the department almost every day hasn't caused any significant disruptions. "It hasn't proven to be a problem," she says. "The employees enjoy it, and it certainly has brought up some comical moments."
For example, there was the day when Reilly's co-owners, Leslie Paolucci, an application specialist at Burton, and Scott Koerner, network systems administrator, were both in a departmental meeting. They had deposited 7-week-old Reilly with a dog-sitter in another department.
"We were in the middle of a discussion when we heard an ear-piercing yelping coming from the office area," Paolucci says. "Scott and I both recognized immediately that it was Reilly and ran out of the meeting." As it turned out, Reilly had knocked down a small barrier of boxes the sitter had built to keep Reilly near the sitter's desk. Reilly had then scampered off to pay a social call to a German shepherd that came to work with an employee in the warranty department.
"The German shepherd didn't feel like playing so he pinned Reilly down. Reilly cried like he was being killed. He wasn't actually hurt at all, just a little wet. But we were pretty embarrassed about leaving the meeting and putting the whole office on alert," Paolucci recalls.
Paolucci says she wouldn't have gotten Reilly if she hadn't been able to bring him to the office. "I would feel like I was neglecting him if he was home alone all day," she says.
Reilly is now 7 months old and, as Koerner says, has become the perfect office dog. He is quiet, calm and gets along with everyone he meets — on two feet or four. Those qualities are essential in an animal that spends all day in an office.
Even assuming the animals are quiet, however, there can be problems associated with letting pets in an office. Some employees could be allergic to cats or afraid of dogs. There's always the risk someone could get bitten. And what if someone wants to bring in a six-foot boa constrictor or a hairy tarantula? After all, people's ideas of pets can cover a wide range of creatures. So why are some companies — albeit not many — willing to take a chance by allowing animals to come to their offices?
For example, pets can improve communication and team building, according to Ken Burkard, manager of applications integration at The Iams Co., a pet-food manufacturer in Dayton, Ohio. "We encourage people to bring their pets to work," he says. "For shyer people or new people, the animals provide a great way of breaking the ice. It's easier to go meet other people when they have dogs and cats in their cubicles with them."
During interviews, many Iams managers tell potential employees that their pets will be welcome at the office. "We consider it a benefit of employment," Burkard says.
Gloria Tapp, an IT applications programmer who brings her cat, Jasmine, to work at Iams also says animals have a beneficial effect on the work environment. "On a tough day, it's great to have a dog or cat to hug and pet," she says.
Burkard, Tapp's boss, says employees have to be responsible about their work, even with pets around. "Gloria could have major problems if she is trying to work on applications and people come by all day to pet the cat," he says. "But our group does a good job of avoiding that problem. The people here are professional and adult and know they have to get their work done."
As much as Burkard supports the notion of pets at work, he recognizes that it isn't appropriate for every employee or for every animal. Burkard is a dog owner, too, but his 110-pound golden retriever has been to the office only twice. "My dog is pretty hyper. He might jump on people and knock them over," he says. "Plus, I move around a lot to different departments and am in lots of meetings. I don't want to leave him alone in my office."
Burkard says IT workers who have positions that require them to spend most of their day at their desk are the best candidates for bringing a pet to the job.
Tapp keeps her cat, Jasmine, attached to her desk with a series of leashes. The Tonkinese feline (a cross between Burmese and Siamese) has about 25 feet of roaming room. "She can reach other people and go into the conference room," Tapp says. "She likes to sleep on top of the computer monitors, especially in the winter."
Tapp used to bring Jasmine to work several times per week but has cut back to just once per week "mostly because I don't want her to bother people who are allergic, or to wear out her welcome. I love bringing her and wouldn't want anything to happen to stop that."
Not every dog has its day
Richard Wonder, president of the New York-based executive search firm Richard Wonder & Associates, says he doesn't think allowing animals in an IT department is a good idea — despite the appeal to some employees. "In this era of providing child care, allowing casual dress and making every attempt to keep employees happy and minimize turnover, this is a very novel idea," Wonder concedes. "However, visions of kitty litter boxes and pooper scoopers, barking dogs and meowing cats in a technical environment seems inconceivable."
Wonder says in the 14 years he has spent interviewing technical candidates, he has never run across a person who insisted on finding a job at a company that allows pets. Nor, to his knowledge, do any of his 350 clients have a "pets-at-work" policy.
But they do exist. Some are small companies with relatively few employees. Many of the larger ones are technology firms in Silicon Valley. They include Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif.; Netscape Communications Corp. in Mountain View, Calif.; and Excite Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. Some firms that allow pets say it's a benefit important enough to some employees that it helps them attract and retain professionals in heavy demand.
But Ethan Winning, president of the management and employee relations consulting firm E. A. Winning Associates Inc. in Walnut Creek Calif., is staunchly opposed to allowing pets in an office. "It's a bad idea," Winning says. "Not everyone likes to have animals at work. It's tough enough to get along with fellow employees, let alone with their pets. 'Love me, love my dog' does not work at work."
But Paolucci says she can concentrate better when Reilly is with her. She even concedes that her dog interferes with her work sometimes. She says she makes up for that by budgeting her time in the office more carefully and putting in additional hours at home. In terms of productivity, having her dog at work "is a plus-minus thing," she says.
"With Reilly here, I don't fall into the trap of working myself into the ground. I have to take him out, and sometimes being able to step away from the computer for 10 minutes allows me to be more productive when I come back." And many employees find that petting a dog — one's own or someone else's — can brighten a stressful day, she says.
Tom Brenneis, IT manager at the architectural firm Gould Evans Goodman Associates in Kansas City, Mo., takes full advantage of his company's pet-friendly position. He supervises an eight-person technical staff and his 3-year-old beagle, Max.
"I bring him a couple of times a week, especially if I'm going to be working late. It's great. He sleeps next to the chair in my office or curls up in the corner during a meeting. If I go for a soda, he follows me," Brenneis says. "It takes a lot of the stress out of the workday when you can turn around and pet your dog just like you would at home."
Brenneis didn't accept the job at Gould Evans Goodman just because Max would be welcome. But the pets policy did play a part in his decision.
"When I was looking at places to work in technology, I wanted to make sure I worked for a company open to new ways of doing things," he says. "While I won't say that I came here because they allow dogs in the office, that open-mindedness indicated the company would probably be open-minded in other areas."
Though experts doubt that pets will begin to pop up in IT departments from coast to coast, allowing animals in the office seems to work well for some companies. For IT managers considering a pets policy, here's a tip from Mincar, Burton Snowboard's IT director: "Don't allow dogs in the server room. Animal hair can wreak havoc with machines."
10 tips for allowing pets at work
1. Poll employees before initiating a new policy allowing pets.
2. Appoint an employee to keep a daily "attendance" sheet documenting the animals in the office.
3. Establish a written pets policy.
4. List any animals, birds, reptiles, insects or fish that aren't welcome in the office.
5. Establish which areas of a building or office are off-limits to pets.
6. Require employees to bring in documents proving pets have had all necessary vaccinations.
7. Establish infractions, such as for excessive noise, destructiveness, biting, fighting with other animals or repeated failure to relieve themselves in an appropriate place, that will result in a pet being permanently barred.
8. Designate an outdoor area for walking dogs.
9. Require pet owners to be in control of their companions at all times, either by keeping them on a leash or in a crate or cage.
10. Accommodate employees with allergies or who dislike animals by providing a pet-free working area.
"We encourage people to bring their pets to work. For shyer people or
new people, the animals provide a great way of breaking the ice. It's
easier to go meet other people when they have dogs and cats in their
cubicles with them."
"With Reilly here, I don't fall into the trap of working myself into the
ground. I have to take him out, and sometimes being able to step
away from the computer for 10 minutes allows me to be more
productive when I come back."
"When I was looking at places to work in technology, I wanted to
make sure I worked for a company open to new ways of doing things.
While I won't say that I came here because they allow dogs in the
office, that open-mindedness indicated the company would probably
be open-minded in other areas."
What a fur-ball idea!
"It's a bad idea. Not everyone likes to have animals at work. It's
tough enough to get along with fellow employees, let alone with their
pets. 'Love me, love my dog' does not work at work."
"This is a very novel idea. However, visions of kitty litter boxes and
pooper scoopers, barking dogs and meowing cats in a technical
environment seems inconceivable."
Wilde is a freelance writer in Easton, Conn. Top photo by Steve Curtis .
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