Dogs in the office – Is it legal to welcome pets into the workplace?
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The fact that animals can improve our physical and mental wellbeing is well-reported.
Stroking a pet can help to reduce the production of hormones such as cortisol and lessen our responses to stressful situations. Reduced levels of stress lead to lower blood pressure, fewer heart problems, and improved sleep. If we are healthier and happier, we perform better in work situations and enjoy life more.
It’s unsurprising then, that since the country began re-emerging from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing trend for dogs joining their owners in the office for part of the week. It’s good for the owner’s mental health, and it’s ideal for the dogs themselves, who are not used to being alone following a lengthy lockdown.
But whilst it sounds good in theory, in practice, bringing a dog into the office may be more problematic than you would perhaps envisage, especially if that office is a commercially let space.
But what are the issues involved, and how can business owners weigh up the positives with the negatives when it comes to welcoming dogs into the workplace? Let’s discuss;
Why are we talking about this now?
The past 18 months have seen an unprecedented boom in pet ownership in the UK, with an estimated 3.2million households welcoming new pets during lockdown.
Of course, most of these animals are simply not used to being ‘home alone’ after an extended period of home working, prompting many employers to consider opening up their doors not just to returning staff, but their 4-legged friends too.
On the face of it, this might just be the answer to the burgeoning crisis that the pet industry now faces, following the news that The Dog’s Trust had received a 35% increase in calls relating to people wanting to give up their dogs since offices began welcoming staff back to their desks.
As with any radical change to the working environment, allowing dogs into a commercial setting is something that should only be done once you have fully considered the impact that it might have on the business.
What are the issues with having dogs in the office?
- Lease clauses: If you are a tenant in a commercially let office space, you shouldn’t simply assume that your lease will allow the introduction of animals onto the premises. Many commercial leases include clauses that prohibit such actions, and if tenants are found to be in breach they could suffer serious consequences.It is important if you intend to bring animals into an office space that you check the terms within your lease first. If a new lease is being negotiated and you intend to have animals on-site, this must be raised at the heads of terms stage.If such activity is prohibited within your lease, then you could simply approach your landlord as they may well agree to a variation. If a lease variation is not available they may agree to negotiate a side letter to the current contract which will be personal to you, allow for a relaxation of provisions for limited periods, subject to specific conditions and regulations being met. If they do not consent to vary the clauses within the lease or negotiate a side letter, then unfortunately animals will not be allowed on the premises.
- Personal injury: Business owners would be deemed liable if a dog or any other animal that has been allowed into the workplace causes injury to any other person on site, be that another employee, a customer, or even a visiting supplier.Dogs tend to get nervous being in new environments with different people, smells, and other dogs. This can cause them to behave completely out of character, even if their owner believes them to be well-behaved in general. As such the likelihood of dogs biting, howling, or running around is vastly increased, as is the risk of the dogs causing personal injury. Any accidents in the workplace could lead to a lawsuit, so it is always advisable to ensure that the business’ insurance will cover injuries caused by animals. It’s important to recognise that insurance coverage of this nature will come at an additional premium, which could make allowing pets on-site cost-prohibitive.As such, it might be beneficial to also ask employees to sign an indemnification agreement too, so that the pet owner would in effect take responsibility for any costs arising from an incident their animal had caused whilst on company property.
- Property damage: In our own homes, we know that pets can cause damage to our property, our furniture, and our carpets. The workplace is no different but add into that mix often highly expensive IT equipment and other people’s personal property, and you may well have a recipe for disaster.
As an employer, you might be liable if a dog were, for example, to chew an employee’s expensive new handbag. Insurance and indemnities would certainly come into play again here, but there is always the option to alter a pet-owning employee’s contract to explicitly state that they would be financially responsible for any damages.
As a landlord, what should you consider if a tenant wants to allow dogs into the office?
Landlords who have been asked to consider making a commercial space dog-friendly should look to include a number of key conditions into with the lease or the side-letter. Such rules should include:
- Dogs to be kept on leads when in communal areas;
- Dogs to be fully vaccinated against rabies, kennel cough, and DHLPP;
- Dogs should not be left unattended whilst on the premises;
- Dogs must be free from fleas and ticks and be treated regularly with preventative medication.
- The maximum number of dogs permitted on-site at any given time.
The lease should enable the landlord to ban any rule-breaking dogs from the workplace, or should it be necessary, terminate a tenant’s right to continue bringing pet dogs to work due to serious breaches or incidents (such as a dog bite).
It might also be worth increasing security deposits for relevant tenants and reviewing indemnification and waiver provisions in their leases to ensure that they are thorough enough to deal with any pet-related injuries and property misuse.
As a business owner, should you consider if you want to allow dogs in the office?
Employers have a responsibility to ensure the health of everyone in the workplace. Even if dogs, on the whole, may improve the wellbeing of some employees, if there is any evidence that a dog’s presence to be detrimental to the health of any colleagues, bringing a dog into the office may not be viable.
Some will not allow dogs in the workplace simply because there are employees who are allergic to them, or who are even fearful. Others will simply seek to accommodate their needs, such as setting aside designated pet-free areas, specified lifts or routes for movement around the office.
Whilst employers are under no obligation to facilitate dogs in the office, if they do decide to introduce this practice it will require a great amount of preparation to ensure that it is safe and fair for both dogs and people alike.
A robust pet-friendly policy that realistically fits the specific work environment will need to be devised and adhered to for such a programme to be successful. Policies will differ for each company, but most will include the basic demands stipulated within the lease agreement (outlined above), alongside several other recommendations:
- The provision of a rota that reflects the demand from the workforce to take part in the scheme
- How dogs will be entertained whilst in the office that won’t distract co-workers (provision of chews/ silent toys)
- Where the animals can be exercised or taken for relief, and the amount of time employees will be allowed to do this.
- Where can dog mess be safely disposed of
- Where can the dogs be fed or given water, along with the provision of bowls
- Whether pets will be allowed every day or perhaps just one day a week
- Specification of any breeds of dog or size of dog that might not be permitted
- Behavioural benchmarks (Eg, only dogs that are reliably safe around strangers, with no history of aggressive traits, such as growling or snarling towards people or other dogs)
What are the business benefits of having dogs in the office?
A business’ ‘culture’ defines its reputation as an employer or partner of choice, and the decision to allow dogs into the office very much defines how you wish your business to be perceived.
A pet-friendly workplace simply isn’t viable for all employers, but if it is, welcoming dogs into the workplace could provide business owners with a low-cost way of making their employees happy and perhaps even more productive.
As a landlord, by becoming pet-friendly, you might find that you can charge higher rents, and also that your tenants will be more likely to renew their leases. No employer will want to move from a pet-friendly location to one which isn’t, as employees may feel that they are having their benefits withdrawn. This could see it more difficult to retain staff or even recruit in the longer term. So, it is in their best interest to find an office space that facilitates their vision for the business.
Ultimately, the decision lays with the landlord. Many don’t want the added complications of opening up their property to possible damage or liability, irrespective of what the tenant wants.
Allowing dogs into the office is still a rarity for this reason, so if a commercial space is proving difficult to lease, it might be worth considering this as a sales perk. It could prove to be appealing to tenants who are themselves wanting to attract talent by setting their businesses apart from the rest.