Offices go to the dogs

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2012 - 8:38 AM

More companies -- even large ones -- are welcoming fine furry friends to the workplace.

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The sprawling kitchen at the Nerdery looks like most any large, progressive office's eating space circa 2012: juicer, popcorn machine, cereal bar with a dozen offerings, six microwaves, four beer-keg taps, a Red Bull cooler -- and a big bowl of dog treats.

On any given day, 30 to 50 dogs join their human mates at this Bloomington outfit. And while the Nerdery is a Web-development firm, this canine contingent makes it clear that the practice is no longer the sole province of small artsy outfits in warehouse-y spaces.

"We've moved or expanded our office space eight times in as many years, and an open-door dog policy has been a must-have in every lease negotiation," said Nerdery co-president Mark Malmberg, whose company has almost 400 employees. "Dogs have been a part of Nerdery culture since day one."

Obviously there are workplaces (restaurants, hospitals) and professions (traffic cop, skyscraper window cleaners) where the practice won't wash. But lots of companies are putting out the dog mat -- and sometimes even poop bags -- for their employees' "best friends."

And with good reason, according to a recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University, which found that for humans, having their tail-wagging pals at their feet significantly reduces their stress levels and can make work more satisfying for fellow employees. According to the American Pet Products Association, 17 percent of U.S. workplaces -- including Google, Autodesk and Amazon -- have instituted open-doggie-door policies.

Count Alan Weiner among the believers.

"We're in a very stressful environment," said the founder and CEO of KTI the Transportation People in Minnetonka, "and with the dogs playing, you can see the blood come back into [employees'] faces. They look up and realize it's not the end of the world, there's this funny dog."

The Nerdery's Alicia Tava has noticed the same phenomenon reflected in the animals. "They know your mental cues," she said, "and if they see you stressing, they'll want to go out."

Ifs, ands or mutts

Like their human companions, the pooches have certain standards of office behavior, beyond being potty-trained. The Nerdery has "kind of a leash law," Malmberg said, and Weiner said KTI has "almost a dog interview process."

"Part of the decorum is they're not in your face," Weiner said. "Every time a buzzer or phone rings, we can't have them barking. They used to go in the kitchen all day, but now they can't do that between 11 and 1."

Perhaps the foremost "rule" is that the dogs know their place, literally: at the feet of their peeps.

At the interactive design firm Bswing in Minneapolis, Anna Smith's West Highland terrier Greta "comes every day and is super mellow, super chill. All you have to do is step over her."

The Nerdery's Kate Ahlers said her dog "is quieter than at home. She notices everyone being good and quiet and so she's good and quiet, too." Weiner said his schnoodle Frankie spends the day patiently "waiting for Mr. UPS Man or Mr. Mailman."

It's good for them, too

Dogs apparently appreciate the regimen of going in to work (indubitably more than some of us do). "Greta waits for me by the door," Smith said. "The routine is so clear to her. We get up, we eat and she is waiting to go."

Breaking that routine can have consequences.

"Sometimes I won't bring them in, based on workload," said the Nerdery's Tava, "and you come home and they're mad at you." Speaking for the canines, co-worker Tracy Fuller said, "'Where have you been? I smell dog on you!'"

The dogs themselves often benefit from regularly joining their owners at work.

"My dog's better at home when I bring her to work," Fuller said. "She's tired, and she has gotten a lot of attention. Seeing other dogs and other people is a lot better than sitting at home on the couch by herself."

Weiner concurred. "The dogs really become socialized," he said. "They pick up character qualities that they wouldn't if they were at home."

The potential benefits for dogs and humans probably are tied to the office's nature, said John Budd, the Department of Work and Organizations chair at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"There are probably particular environments with a particular set of individuals where having dogs in the workplace is beneficial," Budd said. "... I say this partly tongue-in-cheek. Many people are stuck working in lousy conditions. Who wants to subject their dog to their own misery?"

Occasionally a distraction

There can be other doggie downsides.

Katlyn Daoust often brings Stella, her 6-month-old Shar-Pei, to work at Risdall Public Relations. "[Stella] contributes to an upbeat, bright and creative atmosphere," Daoust said, "but I'd be lying if I said she wasn't a little bit of a distraction."

Co-workers' allergies are another potential issue, but dog-friendly workplaces strive to make their policy clear to prospective employees. Weiner said he always asks job applicants if they have allergies, adding that "if they make it to the in- office interview, they can't not see the dogs."

The same goes at the Nerdery. "Nobody gets very far downstream [in the application process] without knowing that," Malmberg said. "I guess it's like people who move near the airport. The airport was there first."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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