As lockdown restrictions finally began to ease last month, Kerrie Daly’s startup gained two new team members, Frankie, a lurcher, and Rufus, a Labrador puppy. “They give everyone a lot of light relief,” Daly says. “Rufus ate the founder’s shoes the other day, which was hilarious.”
When two colleagues said they wanted to get dogs as they were working from home more, the business made a collective decision about flexible working and accommodating the new pets when the time came for at least a partial return to their small office in Hoxton, east London.
For the past month, the dogs have been coming in once or twice a week, sitting in on group calls and putting smiles on everyone’s faces. “For Frankie especially, who’s a rescue, he was a bit wary of humans when they first got him, so getting him used to coming into the office and seeing the same faces is good for him,” Daly says.
“I think most businesses now are moving towards part-time working from home. So for us, unless in the future we hire someone who has an allergy and have to change our policy, any pet would be welcome to come in.”
The past 16 months have seen an unprecedented boom in pet ownership in the UK, with an estimated 3.2m households having acquired a pet over that time. But animal welfare organisations have been warning that pets who have never known anything other than their humans being around all the time could struggle to adjust when owners return to the workplace post-lockdown.
A survey of 1,003 employees conducted by comparethemarket.com in June found that almost half of respondents (42%) were hoping to bring their dog to the office, which the pet insurance expert Mubina Pirmohamed finds unsurprising as “our pets have gotten used to us working from home and we’ve gotten used to having them around”.
Bill Lambert, an animal welfare expert at the Kennel Club, said that as the country opens up, workplaces have a role to play in recognising that lifestyles and priorities have changed for many people since the pandemic began, one aspect of which is the rise in pet ownership.
A survey of 2,001 dog owners conducted by the organisation last month found that over a third of respondents (35%) were worried about leaving their dog at home and how they would cope after spending so much time together during lockdown. More than one in four (28%) worried that they would not be able to give their dog the time and care they need because of a return to the workplace, and a quarter worried about not being able to be with their dog all the time.
“If dogs can’t into fit their owner’s lifestyle post-pandemic, some will undoubtedly be left ‘home alone’ for too long, resulting in behavioural and welfare concerns, or even sadly rehomed or abandoned,” Lambert said. “Dogs are creatures of habit too, and this shift could really impact them in a negative way.”
By being open to becoming more dog-friendly, businesses could help combat “the looming welfare crisis” faced by a generation of pandemic pets, Lambert said, helping owners to introduce or re-introduce their pet to “normal” life while preventing a legacy of separation anxiety.
Experts stress that there are important considerations for workplaces before taking steps to allow pets into the office, including legal obligations to adhere to the rules of the building, and employee health and wellbeing concerns such as allergies.
But the benefits of animals to mental health, morale and alleviating stress are also widely recognised. “It makes such a difference having them,” says Roxy Fielding, who works in a dog-friendly office with several fluffy regulars. “You can forget about if you’ve had a bad call or something stressful has come up, it takes your mind off things and helps you reassess.”
Her colleague, Stacey, adopted her dog, Truffle, from Romania in January and socialised her as much as possible on walks and on public transport so she wouldn’t feel anxious in “normal” life. Their old office had closed when the first lockdown hit and never reopened, so Stacey searched for a space in London that was suitable for flexible working and that was dog-friendly, so Truffle wouldn’t have to be left at home alone.
Having Truffle and other dogs, including daschunds Nova and Prudence, in the office has brought the team closer together. They now can’t imagine it any other way, Stacey says.
Fielding believes accommodating people with pets is easier than some people think and the ability to bring them to work will be attractive for many workers who will have re-evaluated their living situation during the last year.
“Environments are changing and offices aren’t as straightforward as they used to be. They’re much more homely now,” she says. “People feel it isn’t fair to have to leave their dog at home.”