No offense to any of my former bipedal colleagues out there, but the best coworker I've ever had is a puppy. Let me tell you why.
For the last five months, I’ve shared my home office with a yellow labrador retriever named Louie (pictured, top and right) and, yes, he's the cutest thing on earth. I can also genuinely say that he’s taught me a lot about how I work and how I should work.
The benefits of animal companionship are pretty well supported by research--whether it’s the health benefits of elderly pet ownership or the soothing effect therapy dogs have on hospital patients with severe dementia. But it's only in the past couple of years that important studies on how dogs can relieve stress and help productivity at work emerged.
In 2010, researchers at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant showed that dogs in the workplace may act as social catalysts and encourage collaboration. In one of the experiments, people were asked to complete a group task: those groups with a dog in their midst tended to score their teammates higher in terms of trust, team cohesion, and intimacy. Another study, published in the March issue of the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, found that dogs in the workplace may reduce stress and increase job satisfaction for both their owners and those they have contact with.
But you don’t need a scientific study to tell you that scratching a dog’s belly is a great stress reliever. As those who have shared workspace with a shaggy friend will attest, dogs have powerful ability to change the vibe of an office.
Take, for example, Clif Bar Company, the maker of organic food and drinks. They’ve enjoyed canines at their company since they were founded in 1992. Their Emeryville, Calif. headquarters are home to 242 humans and on busy dog days, 10 to 15 canines. “We’ve been dog-friendly from the beginning,” says HR manager, Jennifer Freitas. “Our owners, Gary [Erickson] and Kit [Crawford] are animal lovers. They frequently bring their little terrier to work.”
For Clif Bar, having dogs in the office makes sense for a lot of reasons. From a work-life balance perspective, employees don’t have to worry about their pooch sitting home alone all day, says Freitas, who often brings her dog, Crash, to the office. And the dogs help boost moral, relieve stress, and build community. “There’s a lot of people I probably wouldn’t know as well if they didn’t have dogs. I’ll make a point just to stop at their desk to interact with their dog, and in so doing I’m interacting with them. It really builds connections with our employees which, of course, increases collaboration.”
A dog-friendly office contributes to the overall casual and comfortable work environment that Clif Bar aspires to, which Freitas says ultimately allows people to focus on what’s important: the business of being creative, collaborative, and serving the customer. “There’s a palpable sense of fun and good energy in the office and the dogs are a big part of that. If I see somebody’s dog I just gotta stop and scratch its belly. I just think there’s something that’s so relaxing and soothing about that. I think it really grounds people.”
It turns out that more employers are seeing things that way. According to a survey from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 17 percent of U.S. employers currently allow animals in the workplace.
As for me and Louie, we’ve had our ups and downs (mostly ups) and this is what he’s taught me about a better officemate and reducing work-related stress.
Get in Rhythm with Coworkers
I learned early on that Louie was going to be the one setting the schedule, especially when it came to bathroom breaks. The more I dragged my feet--trying to get one more email out before heading down to the courtyard--the more time I spent cleaning up puppy puddles. So I had to adjust--and to a degree, that’s what should happen whenever people share a workspace. Michael the designer talks to his wife on the phone around 2 p.m. every day? Good time to grab an afternoon cup of coffee. Or maybe first thing in the morning is when a couple people need to hammer out their blog posts. Concentration time. Save the chit chat for the mid-morning lull.
Take a Walk
This has got to be the most important thing Louie has taught me. When he doesn’t get enough exercise he’s a ball of energy, and not the good kind--nervous, unproductive energy that keeps both of us from focusing. So a couple times a day Louie and I take a hike around the block or a spin through the park. I’m amazed at how often these short jaunts result in a good idea. It’s because for that brief time, I’m not over-thinking whatever I’m working on; my brain has a chance to wander. Plus it’s all around healthy for you: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity to decrease the risk of developing diseases such as type-2 diabetes. That’s like two dog walks.
Eat on Schedule
When I worked in a proper office, I used to go to lunch with one of my coworkers almost every day. The thing was, he always wanted to eat at exactly noon. At first, his military-like routine annoyed me. I had always been more of an eat at your desk or go to lunch when you can squeeze it in kind of guy--waiting until I was starving and low of energy. But soon I realized how beneficial it is to actually take a true lunch. When my lunch cohort transferred to Stockholm, I was back to my evil ways, eating as late as 3 p.m. some days. But now, with a puppy around, that doesn’t fly. Labs live for food and Louie is no exception. If the food pellets don’t hit the bowl by 1 p.m. he’s looking at me like I’m a fur-less freak.
Grin and Bear It
I’m sure you’re having a stressful day--but bad moods are contagious and your sour looks spread to others. See, every time I look over at Louie, he’s got a winning smile for me--eyes that light up the room. That’s a powerful tool. And you’ve got it, too, if only you’d use it.
That’s not to say you have to fake unrelenting cheer, but much scientific research sings the praises of a simple smile, showing that people who frequently smile are perceived as more in control and attractive, that grinning can help your health, well-being, and the mood of those around you. When you lift someone else’s spirits it’s something they won’t soon forget. And even Louie knows that to get what you want--in his case a Milk-Bone--it can’t hurt to look cute.
Want to give it a shot at your company? Here's some tips for creating a dog-friendly workplace.
What effects have dogs had on your company or employees? Tell us about it in the comments--or, better yet, show us a picture of your cutest office pooch by uploading your photos using the comment box below!
Related: The Dogs Of Zynga
[Image: Danette Pascarella]