It would be easy to think that Columbia Rural Electric Association has gone to the dogs. All you have to do is look around.
On any given day, there may be a golden retriever peeking out the doorway of the CEO’s office, a Labrador lying next to the communicator’s desk or a fluffy white terrier keeping the human resources director company while she dispenses treats to other furry visitors. A dachshund named Ellie greets consumer-members at the front desk.
It may sound like a bit of canine chaos, but employees say the Walla Walla, Washington-based co-op’s well-regulated dogs-to-work program is boosting morale, strengthening camaraderie and creating a warmer, fuzzier place to work.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand how it reduces stress,” says Jennifer Aichele, the co-op’s manager of human resources and owner of Wendy the rescue terrier. “People can hear when a dog comes in the backdoor, and they’ll stop in to say hi. It opens the door to more fun, light-hearted talking and bonding.”
Although CEO Scott Peters started the program before the COVID-19 pandemic, it increased in popularity when employees returned to the office after working from home. About eight dogs—including Peters’ 2-year-old golden retriever, Angus—come to the office regularly with their owners. Others make guest appearances from time to time.
Steve Owens, the co-op’s member services communications specialist, adopted his “COVID puppy,” a Labrador retriever named Buddy, at the beginning of the pandemic and was worried about leaving the young dog home alone when he and his wife returned to their offices.
“He’s been totally spoiled, and he was going stir-crazy,” Owens says. “He loves coming to work with me and greeting all the people and walking around the hallway. It’s fun to have him here, for sure. He puts a smile on everyone’s face, which puts a smile on mine.”
Peters, a dog lover who also owns a 6-year-old terrier mix named Pippin, came up with the idea for the bring-your-dog-to-work program shortly after he became CEO in the summer of 2018.
“The positive effect that dogs have on employees was evident from the start,” he says. “Every time a member would walk into the lobby to pay a bill with their dog, four or five employees would gather around, talking to the member and petting the dog.”
Peters wanted to bring that joy to the workplace more often, so he asked Aichele to come up with a plan that would allow employees to bring their dogs to the office regularly without causing too much distraction or creating safety hazards. Aichele says she spent more than six months researching programs to ensure that the co-op got it right.
“I like structure and guidelines,” she says. “One of my big questions was: What would we do if everybody brought their dog to work on the same day?”
To avoid that scenario, Aichele created a calendar where employees sign up to bring their dogs to work once a week. People whose offices are close to one another are asked to choose different days.
Columbia REA is set up well for canine visitors because employees all have their own offices. It’s also a small co-op, with 49 employees serving more than 4,500 members.
The rules are simple, Aichele says. Dogs must be well-behaved, clean, house-trained and relatively quiet. And they must report to her office upon arrival to get a treat.
“I’m happy to report that we haven’t had to disinvite a single dog,” Aichele says.
There is a zero-tolerance policy for dogs that are aggressive or bite, Peters says.
“It’s one strike, and you’re out,” he says. “But we haven’t had a single problem.”
The only ineligible employees are lineworkers and other outdoor crews.
“That was the one place where I had to draw the line,” he says.
Besides elevating everyone’s mood, the visiting dogs help ensure that employees take breaks from sitting at their computers all day to take short walks around the building. Some of the employees who don’t own dogs volunteer to walk their co-workers’ pets.
“Taking Angus for a walk forces me to not let myself get holed up for hours in my office,” Peters says. “Even if I just sit down on the floor for a couple of minutes to pet a dog, it’s a stress reliever. What could be better than that?”
Does your small or medium-sized co-op have an innovative program or unique solution to share? Send Thinking Big ideas to Erin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.