People often have to stifle a laugh when they first see Kayla Schlicht’s dog, Carbon.

With the long body and short legs of a Basset hound and the glossy coat of a black Lab, the rescue’s unusual parentage makes it a bit cartoonish.

That doesn’t stop Schlicht from bringing Carbon almost everywhere she goes, including her workplace.

Carbon often spends her day at Schlicht’s feet, lounging inside a cubicle at Opportunity Partners’ headquarters in Minnetonka, where Schlicht, a service coordinator, writes care plans for people with disabilities.

“It’s a bonus to have her here instead of cooped up in her kennel,” she said. “She’s worn out when we go home.”

Carbon’s presence also is a plus to Schlicht’s cube-mate, Jesse Millard-Dernell.

“I play with her after I’ve worked on something stressful,” she said. “It’s a good mental break.”

Bringing a dog to work was a perk pioneered in the tech industry, which found that its casually dressed, handsomely compensated young geniuses were more willing to work long hours when in the company of their canine companions.

Opportunity Partners is taking a page from that book, but to give its staff a boost.

While nonprofits can seldom spoil their workers with private-sector goodies such as free food or an on-site masseuse, allowing pets on the premises can be a plus that costs nothing.

“We came up with this last spring when we were looking at incentives we could give our people that are not tied to money,” said Todd Schoolman, head of human resources for the 63-year-old nonprofit. “We see it as an extension of our wellness plan. We want to make the workplace enjoyable.”

Since then, dozens of Opportunity Partners employees have gotten their manager’s approval to bring their pets to work at the nonprofit’s offices as well as its group homes.

“We also see many examples of how the people we serve appreciate the pets,” he said.

Schoolman himself has seen how dogs enhance working conditions. Some days he brings Ruby, his 13-year-old Cockapoo, with him, putting up a baby gate at his open door to keep her from wandering.

“She’s quite the icebreaker as I move among employee groups,” he said. “It breaks down the silos.”

He’s right.

A recent study from Central Michigan University found that dogs in the workplace proved beneficial to business, by improving morale, collaboration and productivity.

Keeping workers engaged

For Opportunity Partners, the policy is aimed at boosting staff retention, with the idea that happier employees are more likely to stay put.

In Minnesota, direct support professionals such as Schlicht and Millard-Dernell assist some 100,000 people with developmental and physical disabilities. Their wages, which range from $10 to $15 an hour, are locked in place by state reimbursement rates.

But because their work is demanding, with high responsibility and low salaries, hanging on to quality staff is a constant struggle for advocacy organizations. There are 8,700 vacant direct support professional positions statewide.

“This is the dark side of our low unemployment rate,” said Rico Mace, CEO of Orman Guidance, a Bloomington-based consumer research firm.

“High workplace participation flips the power to applicants and employees. Every employer, including nonprofits, has to constantly think about what they can provide to keep employees engaged.”

The price of turnover is steep. The Society for Human Resource Management pegs the cost of losing a single employee at $4,129, based on lost productivity and training replacements.

“Keeping staff provides consistency for people we serve, and that’s important in their day-to-day,” Schoolman said. “At any given time, we have roughly 60 unfilled positions, so we’re always looking, always hiring.”

The pet perk is an option other cash-strapped nonprofits might consider.

The Animal Humane Society also has a policy to allow its staff to bring pets to work.

“It’s been a morale booster,” said Zach Nugent, spokesman for the Golden Valley organization.

While he said he doesn’t know of other local nonprofits that have a formal workplace pet policy, he views it as an idea with legs, so to speak.

“It’s a creative incentive that will make a difference that employees will notice,” he said. “I predict it will become more common.”

The pet perk won’t entirely ease the workforce dilemma at Opportunity Partners, but it has led to greater job satisfaction for some employees, including Hannah Mead, a service coordinator who brings Nitro, her black-and-white pointer/lab mix, to work with her.

“When I’m responding to e-mails and doing paperwork, it can get monotonous,” she said. “But you can’t have a bad day when you spend it with your dog.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.