Finding balance in the second half of life

Pets@Work

In Survival on January 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

My cat Scratch works long hours in my home office, rearranging paper piles, typing cryptic notes on my laptop, making sure that my wireless mouse isn’t lazing around on its pad. The other day as I watched him bat the mouse to the floor, then drape himself elegantly across my notes and keyboard (he’s a big guy), it occurred to me that my furry assistant might actually be having a negative impact on my productivity.

Not that I would ever consider banning him from my place of work. Who else is going to pat me on the cheek with a soft paw as I labor in my endless pursuit of a fresh approach to extolling the virtues of adjustable-height tables?

Still, it got me thinking that there are probably a lot of people out there who share an office with their pet(s), and even more who wish they could. And, speaking of height-adjustable tables, mightn’t there be a market out there for furnishings — or at least accessories — designed to accommodate the special needs of the pet-friendly office?

A little bit of internet research revealed that, yes, many, many people these days face cat-computer compatibility issues. Also, I am not the first one to think that a desktop cat support device (in your choice of birch, cherry, or walnut veneer) is an idea whose time has come.

The real revelation for me, though, was the extent to which the pets-at-work phenomenon has spread beyond the home office. A recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) found that nearly one in five U.S. companies now allow pets at work. Many of these pet-friendly offices belong to small startups (my personal favorite, Small Dog Electronics, devotes a page on its website to employee and customer dogs) probably because with fewer employees it’s easier to reach consensus on issues like pet hair and squeak toys. But larger businesses are also signing on. Google, for example, has a liberal pet policy that nevertheless includes the provision “Dogs are not allowed on the sand volleyball court.”

The mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership are well documented. Studies have shown that pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and an increased rate of survival after a coronary event. Simply being in the presence of a friendly animal has a measurable positive effect on pulse and blood-pressure rates and reduces the intensity of stress experienced by people in such stress-inducing situations as undergoing a medical procedure or taking a math test.

But the benefits to employers who let workers bring their furry friends to the office extend beyond a healthier and more relaxed staff. The APPMA survey found that pets in the workplace improve employee morale and camaraderie, reduce absenteeism, and promote willingness to work overtime. Ninety-six percent of the pet-friendly companies surveyed said that pets contributed to positive work relations, and 73 percent said that pets in the office “create a more productive work environment.” Businesses that allow pets believe it improves the atmosphere for all employees, even those who are not pet owners themselves. In companies where people work long hours and/or spend most of their days working on computers, pets encourage employees to take healthful physical and mental breaks.

“Taking a minibreak elevates our brainpower and makes us more creative,” writes Doris Helge, pets-at-work proponent and author of Joy on the Job. “Some of us don’t take time to take the break we need until Rover reminds us.”

In a time when money is tight and work-life balance issues are hot, establishing a pet-friendly policy is an inexpensive perk that can serve as a significant recruitment and retention tool. Simply Hired, an online jobs database, provides a search option that allows job seekers to specify that they wish to work for a dog-friendly company. A survey by Simply Hired and Dogster, another online site, found that a third of employed dog-owners would be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant they could bring their pets to work. Two-thirds said they would work longer hours, and half said they would switch jobs.

Not everyone is an animal lover, of course, and even some who are have allergies to pet dander. Some employers try to accommodate everyone by designating certain areas as pet-free zones. Most companies that allow pets have a written policy which outlines expectations about where pets are allowed and what their owners’ responsibilities include. Policies typically specify that animals be housebroken, flea-free, and friendly, and that their humans clean up after them, inside and out. Autodesk, a pet-friendly company employing 1, 100 people at its San Raphael site, stipulates that “dogs are not to be brought to meetings” and “loud, repetitive barking or eating another employee’s food is also not acceptable.” Seems reasonable to me.

Promoters of “Take Your Dog to Work Day” (next  TYDTWD: June 24, 2011) offer tips for people planning to introduce Fido to the office that include leaving the squeak toy at home and making sure that your cubicle or office can safely and comfortably accommodate your pet. With regard to the latter, entrepreneurial types are already training their focus on the pet-friendly office market.

U.S. Patent 5934813 — “Keyboard protector having peaked configuration” — claims a unique design for a “protector assembly” comprising a “means to prevent an animal from remaining thereon in obstructing relation to the keyboard.” Under “Background of the Invention” the inventor explains the need for this device:

… individuals who are pet owners and particularly cat lovers and also use some type of computer instrument involving a keyboard have encountered the problem of having cats generally prowl across the keyboard thereby disturbing the operation thereof. In addition, cats of a particularly curious nature or those who have a habit of invading the operating area while their owners are working on the computer certainly have a disruptive effect on the operation and in fact, could, in certain instances, destroy certain work currently being performed on the computer.

I haven’t been able to determine if the protector assembly has made it into production yet.

In the meantime, BitBoost Systems offers PawSense, a software utility that “quickly detects and blocks cat typing.” The application analyzes key stroke timing and combinations to distinguish between your typing style and your cat’s. Its designers say that PawSense typically recognizes a cat on the keyboard within one or two “pawsteps” and then proceeds to block the cat’s “keyboard input.”

Or, better yet, let your cat use those keyboard skills to supplement the family income. A new book out from Ten Speed Press — Careers for Your Cat by Ann Dziemianowicz  — includes a “Meowers-Briggs Career/Personality Test” to help  you find the perfect placement for your office cat.

–Debra Wierenga

This article was originally published on jugglezine.com.

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  1. I can SO relate to this now that I work out of my home permanently. I like the Kitt-In Box, in particular, although I feel maybe I’ve solved that problem by providing a cozy box and basket for two cats very near my desktop. Still, the computer lures cats. It must be the heat. Or the “mouse” (i.e., cursor) on the screen that they like to chase. Sometimes, I do have to give in and just shut the door, leaving the cats out so I can concentrate. But, mostly, they fuel my productivity because they bring so much joy and love to my life. And when I’m really stuck on a word, or a title, taking a kitty play break is a good solution for writer’s block!
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Debra, Marcia told me about this post–I love it! My cat Squeakers sleeps in my In box, and when we moved to Prague, I had to find a cat-sized In box… I ended up with a silverware drawer with the dividers taken out! Recently, our other cat Domino puked in the In box in the middle of the night… maybe a territorial thing? And one morning I found a cat claw in place of the letter “W” on my keyboard, which is still missing. But I do love having cats around while I work, whether they’re curled up on my lap or howling out the window at another creature… They give me just about the right amount of social contact I need to stay productive and happy working at home.

  3. Guys, with all due respect, the cats are more of a problem than a help, at least when it comes to work. We have two cats – an 11-year-old with very long, grey hair, and a 4-year-old with a incredible curiosity. Neither one is an ally for working. Yes – they walk on the keyboard, but they also push that button on the printer that makes it generate a test sheet. Cats need to stay home.
    Dogs, on the other hand – now there are some work companions. Once my golden has had his needs met (fed, outside, walked, fed, outside), he curls up on the floor at my feet. I can work for 2 hours at a time with no interruption (except for the cats). And then the golden (Ernie) says it’s time for a break, it’s time.

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