My business is going to the dogs…

For a change of pace, I thought I’d peel back the covers on the internal workings of our company and share just a bit of our cultural considerations here in Madison. If you’ve worked with or for us you know we pride ourselves on trying to create a comfortable, fun, engaging but unique culture.

This is more than just lip service – in a business where every asset we have walks out the door each night at closing time, it’s sound business. We make a conscious effort to invest in an environment where our employees and clients can feel like they’re part of something special.

To be perfectly candid, as an owner of the business who also sees peril around every corner, that can require some deep gulps. But my team has helped hold my hand and guide me through a flexible vacation policy and work hours, open model shop, the ability to borrow the company van, allowing an occasional beer on a Friday afternoon (which has now morphed into an installed kegerator – I digress), etc. And without exception our employees have risen to the challenge and the positives of pushing me on the work culture have far offset the minor issues we’ve experienced. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

But there are practical limits to the degree of “wacky” we can tolerate before crazy begins to infringe on the comfort level of all our employees – or erode the responsibility we have to build into an environment where serious work can be done.

One such flash point where this potential conflict rears its head is in our thoughts on allowing dogs at the office. For the record, I’d like to state in no uncertain terms that I really like dogs. But Madison is our largest office, so it’s inevitable that when we get to a certain size we’re going to have some employees who would rather not run into Fido during their 9-to-5. And I had a formative experience as a young manager with an in-office dog/employee conflict that made me a bit gun-shy about creating a canine free-for-all. So, while all our three offices are free to set their own doggy norms (both San Fran and Boston are decidedly dog-welcome environments), our Madison headquarters had historically been a four-legged-free zone. Best to let sleeping dogs lie.

That began to change some time ago when a few of our employees began to experiment with “Dog-tober fest” – a day in October when we welcomed in dogs. We never explicitly changed any policies or norms, but dogs began to appear, sporadically at first, but then with a bit more regularity. Our employees began to look to me for guidance and I could only claim ignorance for so long.

As president, this poses an interesting dilemma. On one hand, it was obvious that a majority of our employees and clients really thought it was cool having a couple of dogs occasionally around the office. I had more than one visiting client comment how unique and fun it made us seem. On the other hand, it was inevitable that there were employees who weren’t as thrilled – and this was compounded by the very real possibility that they might feel reluctant to raise their hand for fear of bucking what was clearly a popular tide. Nobody wants to be “that guy,” but everyone has a right to feel safe, comfortable, and efficient at their job. Beyond this, there’s a distinct possibility of clients or employees who are legitimately frightened of dogs or allergic to them. What to do?  

So, I hit the internet for guidance – and didn’t find quite as much help as I’d hoped. This comes as no shock, but the world is divided into dog owners and non-dog owners. And sometimes the two groups don’t see eye-to-eye. The easy thing to do would be to ban dogs in deference to the individuals who rightfully didn’t want to deal with them. But that’s sort of the tail wagging the dog. And if Amazon, with its 600,000 employees can survive with a famously dog-centric culture, I figured we could find a way to make it work.

After spending, what was probably too much time wringing my hands, I drafted our very own “common sense/common courtesy” (one of our core values) dog policy. I’m sharing it below in case it helps illuminate a path for any other small business owners grappling with this same issue.

Is it perfect? I’m sure it’s not. I would suspect there are some of our Madison employees who would still prefer to eliminate any workplace interaction with dogs. And I’m pretty sure we’re going to have some issues on occasion. Time will tell, but so far, detente seems to be holding.

This whole experience has left me even more grateful for the amazing employees of Design Concepts and their willingness to allow me to lead them. I can’t imagine what it would be like to navigate this sort of morass with a less understanding, less flexible cast. Sometimes they make even the hardest parts of my job easy. What can I say? It’s (not) a dog’s life.

Vivian Lin gets some love from Trip.
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