First came child care, then came elder care. Now, companies are doggedly exploring one of the last frontiers of the work-family balance: pet care.
Dogs snooze happily beneath desks at some companies, their owners freed from worries about what’s being chewed at home. A Virginia firm picks up the kennel tab for workers sent out of town unexpectedly. A California company pays up to $100 in annual veterinary bills.
“There was a time when pet care was a taboo thing for companies,” said Tyler Phillips, president of the Partnership Group, a Bluebell, Pa. work-life consulting firm.
“But as managers have understood the issue better, they’ve come to realize that pets can be as complicated to care for as children or elders,” said Phillips, whose company once helped locate an iguana support group for a lonely iguana owner.
No doubt, Americans love their pets. They coddle them, they dress them, they dote on them. And since two-thirds of dog and cat owners don’t have children, a pet can easily become the baby of the house.
“I have a dog that is my daughter,” Maggie Proctor, a spokeswoman for Domino’s Pizza Inc., cheerfully admits. “She was the No. 1 female beagle in the country in 1994. Aren’t I a proud parent?”
At Domino’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., buffalo and sheep graze on the company’s 300-acre property, and employees’ dogs are welcome to visit occasionally if an owner feels the need.
“You wouldn’t think twice to walk down the hall and see someone with their dog,” Proctor said. “People stop by, give it a pat, and move along. It’s generally business as usual.”
Autodesk, a software company in San Rafael, Calif., goes further. Owners are welcome to bring their dogs every working day, and up to 100 of the 800 employees do.
Dogs sleep under desks, romp in the yard and sample from a biscuit jar hospitably placed at the front desk. The only ground rules: No barking, no meetings, and three poops and the pooch is out.
“It’s a stress reliever for those who bring in their dogs,” said spokeswoman Kathy Tom Engle. “And neighbors who work nearby can also pet and play with the dogs.”
Cats aren’t excluded from the workplace but tend to roam too much, Engle said. “Dogs are happy here,” she said, adding that once a boa constrictor also visited.
Employees love the 15-year-old open-door policy so much that they sometimes decide to take or keep a job at Autodesk based on that rule alone, Engle said. Others decide to get a dog because of it.
Cindy Brogan, assistant to the vice president of corporate marketing, is one such loyalist. She wouldn’t have gotten her 15-month-old Weimaraner if she’d had to leave the dog home alone.
“Now she can be with me all the time,” said Brogan, who said Chelsea sleeps, flirts with visitors and other office dogs, and generally has a great time at work. “When I turn down the street to come to work, she’s practically jumping out of the car.”
Although laughable to some, the notion of allowing pets at work and other pet-oriented benefits reflects a logical next step in corporations’ growing commitment to helping employees balance work and home.
Working parents are no longer the only beneficiaries. All sorts of employees now work from home or set their own hours. And companies are finding that such flexibility makes a company more attractive and its workers more productive.
“It’s all part of the recognition by employers that people have lives away from work,” said Anita Garaway-Furtaw, director of family services at Patagonia in Ventura, Calif.
Employees at the sportswear company sometimes take surfing breaks if the waves are right, make use of a 13-year-old on-site day-care center or work from home to care for a sick pet.
Although dogs aren’t allowed inside Patagonia buildings, a few hang out in owners’ cars, which are equipped with water bowls and have rolled-down windows. During the day, they’re let out for walks and play. Tonka, who stays in contracts manager Roger McDivitt’s car, is a favorite of the day- care set.
American Management Systems Inc., a Fairfax, Va., information systems consulting firm, also finds that helping employees care for their pets makes sense.
AMS will pick up the tab for pet sitting or kennel care if an owner has to travel unexpectedly--a 2-year-old policy that not only instills company loyalty but allows employees to focus more on work and less on domestic worries.
“This provides a level of support for employees so they can go out and do the work,” said Mary Good, manager of work-life programs.
The Partnership Group reimburses for all kennel care related to business trips, whether unexpected or not, Phillips said.
In pioneering such policies, companies sense they’ve struck a chord with employees.
When Synbiotics Corp. offered in July to begin paying up to $100 in employees’ annual veterinary bills, it was seeking not only to help pets, but to boost employee ties to the company--which makes vaccines and medical tests for dogs and cats.
But president and chief executive officer Kenneth Cohen was unprepared for the attention his benefit would prompt. “Now I get more calls than I can count, asking for information on this policy,” he said.