1 in 10 people became new pet owners during the pandemic. What happens when they go back to the office?

Remember the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns? The bread-baking mania? The rush to secure toilet paper whenever and wherever possible?

 

You may also recall that pet adoption took off during the pandemic. With children and adults alike spending so much time at home, objections to pet ownership melted away. Our Resetting Normal research found that one out of 10 households became new pet owners during the pandemic, with Turkey (36%) and Brazil (24%) leading the way.

 

In the U.S. alone, a study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that nearly 20% of all households acquired a dog or cat during the pandemic. That equates to about 23 million new four-legged companions. Demand in the UK and Europe was similar, with pet adoptions more than doubling in many cases.

 

Fast-forward to late 2021, with COVID-19 receding (fingers crossed) in most regions. Employers are trying to lure workers back to the office, either permanently or on a hybrid basis. This endgame phase of the pandemic presents myriad challenges to businesses seeking to hire and retain top talent. Among those challenges is what to do about pets. What are the pros and cons of allowing them in the office?

Photo: FOX via Pexels

(Before we move on, some good news: As COVID slowly recedes, there are anecdotal reports that “pandemic pets” have been returned to shelters or even abandoned on a large-scale basis. We’re pleased to report this is not true, according to most experts and statistical evidence; indeed, that ASPCA study found that 90% of dogs and 85% of cats adopted during lockdown are still with their owners.)

 

 

The benefits of pandemic pets for workers

 

The positive effects of pet ownership in general have long been known and documented, both anecdotally and in peer-reviewed studies. Caring for a cat or dog helps people in myriad ways; Pet owners have higher self-esteem and get more exercise than those without pets, which leads to such measurable positives as lower blood pressure and a reduction in obesity. Small wonder, then, that research shows pets offer “many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners.”   

 

But can these benefits be extended to the workplace? Our study appears to indicate it can. Researchers asked thousands of office workers about what aspects of their lives, if any, actually improved during the pandemic. Responses tilted notably in favor of those with furry companions.

Photo: Pixabay License

Asked if their job motivation had improved, 36% of pet owners said yes, compared to 23% of non-owners. Similarly, 38% of pet owners reported their physical wellbeing had improved, while only 28% of non-owners said the same. And where mental wellbeing was concerned, the figures were similar; 37% of pet owners reported improvement, compared to 26% of non-pet-owners.

 

One reason to allow pets into the office may surprise you: dogs can actually help people think better. At least one study found that interacting with dogs (sorry, cats — this study explored only the canine connection) enhanced people’s abilities to plan, concentrate, memorize, and carry out executive functions. As psychologist June McNicholas told the Guardian, pets can be especially important for socially isolated people — and doesn’t that describe most of us in the past 20 months? “Pet care and self-care are linked,” McNicholas noted. “When you take a dog out for a walk, people talk to you.”

 

Let’s not leave the feline contingent out in the cold; cats, too, have been shown to reduce stress. One study found cat owners had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure than non-owners, and were better able to handle stressful tasks without difficulty.

 

 

Handling the influx

 

Employers now face a perfect storm for allowing workers to bring pets to the office. There are those millions who adopted pets during the pandemic and would prefer not to leave them home alone. And in many quarters there is an ongoing talent shortage that has contributed to global supply-chain problems. In response, many top employers are allowing dogs and cats into their offices; such previously rare measures may be the only way to adequately staff up in the post-COVID era.  

 

Amazon may be the best-known exemplar of the trend. Even pre-pandemic, the retail giant was known as the most dog-friendly company on earth, with more than 7,000 woofers registered to commute to Seattle headquarters. Alphabet (formerly Google), which makes note of office-bound hounds right in its code of conduct, is another dog-friendly workplace (though cats are verboten — more on that in a moment). Etsy and the American Kennel Club (no surprise there) are also longtime members of the growing quadruped club.

Photo: Zen Chung via Pexels

The key to a successful workplace-pets program, animal experts and experienced employers agree, is to have and enforce a well thought out policy that respects pet owners, non-owners, and of course the animals themselves. Which brings us back to Alphabet’s puss prohibition: the company believes, understandably, that with so many dogs lurking about, cats would be stressed out.

 

So many companies are joining Amazon and Alphabet, or considering such a move, that a new business opportunity has sprung up: firms that help employers set and enforce pet policies. “We provide an HR toolkit with resources such as a health and behavior assessment used to understand a dog’s history before inviting them into the office,” Jeff Skalka, founder and CEO of Connected Canine, one such business, recently told the Tysons Reporter. Northern Virginia-based Connected Canine also helps clients approve dogs before allowing them on the premises and track vaccination records.

 

Successful pet policies have several features in common:

 

  • Managerial approval must be secured, and the animal registered with the employer in some fashion.

  • Leashes are a must for dogs, and owners must always clean up after their pets.

  • Vaccinations must be shown to be up to date, and the animal must be healthy.

  • HR reserves the right to ban a specific animal if it causes allergic reactions, fear, or other discomfort for the owner’s co-workers, or if it reduces productivity or work quality.

 

Many employers have found ways to make all this work. And with so many people reluctant to leave Rex or Tabby at home, a forward-looking pet policy may make all the difference in hiring.

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