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Ric Zampatti, CEO of The Barter Company in Kennesaw, oversees just 12 employees, but two workers not on the payroll are equally critical, contributing to the morale of both workers and visitors. Their tasks include checking up on employees who seem stressed or ill and making newcomers welcome. One of them has taken on additional duties as the office greeter and maintains a vigilant position by the front door.
Not only are these two vital to the office’s ability to function, they’re cheap: A few snacks, regular meals, fresh litter boxes and an affectionate caress every now and then are all these office cats require for compensation.
“Rosco sits by the front door, but Bobo usually hangs out on the desks of employees,” said Zampatti. “Last year, we had an employee who broke her back and was in daily pain. When she came back to work, Bobo was there, giving her love and support to get through the day. They earn their keep by making my employees happy and enhancing morale. If people are happy, they want to come to work, and as an owner, whatever I can do to enhance the work experience is worth it. It’s not only a minimal expense; it’s a no-brainer.”
Zampatti’s cats live in a 5,000-square-foot office, and employees take turn checking food levels, cleaning litter boxes, taking the pets to the vet and dropping by on long holiday weekends to check up on them. The shared responsibilities mean Zampatti opens an employment interview with one question: “Are you allergic to cats?”
“We had one person who said yes, but she was okay taking Benadryl every day,” said Zampatti. “Unfortunately, the cats won out, and she left us. Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of turnover, so it’s not much of an issue. But it’s a common scene to be in a meeting with a client when the cats jump up on table, and every once in a while, we do get someone with an allergy. But that just makes meetings shorter. Most people, the first thing they do is give the cats a pet.”
Cats and dogs are becoming increasingly common in office environments, said Cal Morgan, president and CEO of the Atlanta Humane Society. And these are not service dogs, specifically trained to assist people with disabilities. They’re personal pets brought in by their owners.
“We regularly get calls from companies asking for advice and looking for policies on how to handle companion animals in the workplace,” said Morgan. “It’s not surprising when two-thirds of employees have a companion animal at home, which means 7 out of 10 of us are leaving an animal when we go to work. Since research has shown that most people consider an animal to be a member of the family, people feel closer to their pets and want them in their personal and work environments.”
Allowing pets to come to work means setting guidelines to avoid conflict, not just between the pets but the owners as well. It means being sensitive to workers who may not have a fondness for another person’s pet or have health issues that might cause discomfort. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor weighed in on the topic, issuing guidelines giving service animals the right to be in the office over an employee’s disapproval.
“But what happens when your brilliant coder brings in his or her German shepherd?” asks Mark Elliott, a partner in real estate law with Troutman Sanders LLP. “Then you may have problems. You might have one dog. Great. Two dogs begin to interact. Three dogs and there may be fighting and biting. It’s also like having an employee who smokes; I can keep the behavior to myself, but it might affect other people nearby. A dog’s behavior can still affect other people.”
A pet in the office can also impact an entire working complex, Elliott points out.
“If I’m a landlord leasing to tenants with dogs that are fighting near the elevator bank, it won’t just be one tenant who’s affected,” he said. “There may also be extra costs or burdens that need to be identified when leasing to offices with pets. For instance, there may be higher cleaning costs if a pet comes in with fleas, and your janitorial contract doesn’t cover pest control. Unfortunately, fleas don’t honor tenant spaces. What about the area where the dogs are walked? That has to be taken care of. From a landlord’s perspective, you’ve got to be careful if a tenant insists on pets that you’re allocating costs correctly.”
At the same time, Elliott sees pet-friendly workplaces as the trend that follows pet-friendly living spaces.
“It used to be that the most important amenities apartment owners sold were fitness areas; now it’s areas where you can walk your dog,” he said. “And it’s more than bring-your-pet-to-work Friday; it’s becoming a fundamental right to have so many dogs per square feet. While it’s an attraction for some, it can be a detraction as well. It could limit your hiring ability when some people realize they don’t want to work there.”
The 70 employees at the Nebo Agency on Atlanta’s Westside have taken the pets-at-work policy to heart, said CEO Brian Easter. The Web and mobile design firm, which recently was the only Atlanta business to place on The Bark’s list of top workplaces that allow dogs, has specific guidelines that cover pet issues.
“For instance, we have a 3-dog maximum per day, so employees reserve their days through our dogs calendar,” he said. “We found any more than that is distracting. The calendar also helps us scheduled dogs that work best together and are friendly to clients and customers. We provide toys, treats, bowls and beds, and there are several areas outside where owners can walk the dogs. We haven’t had any conflicts; even allergies aren’t really an issue since we’re in a pretty open space, and we keep it clean.”
Easter, who owns two dogs, has taken his love of animals even further, producing a pro bono campaign to encourage pet adoptions and rescues.
“We have always been passionate about animals and giving back to the community,” he said. “Pets are part of our family, and it makes our employees happy to bring in their pets. The level of happiness goes up and tension reduces when that little face looks up and says, ‘I love you.’”