Friday June 23rd is this year’s Take Your Dog to Work Day. Celebrated since 1999, the day was originally dedicated to the joy that dogs bring to the lives of their owners. Adoption has grown swiftly over the years, and attention has turned to the affect dogs have on the workplace. Can the power of face-to-face collaboration reach across species?

To find out more about the latest study WorkSpace Today reached out to Professor Stephen Colarelli in the Psychology Department at Central Michigan University. Professor Colarelli and his team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants spent two years collecting data on how a variety of dog breeds could influence the way groups of up to four people interacted with each other.

See below for our Q&A with Colarelli for the background on research behind #takeyourdogtoworkday .

 

What inspired you to conduct this research?

Occasionally I would bring my dog, Marceau, a standard poodle, to my office. When I did, I noticed that students were more comfortable and forthcoming. Normally, when students would complain about a grade or ask for advice on writing a paper, they would initially be tense, and it would take a while to break the ice. However, when Marceau was there, students would respond with a smile to his friendly gestures, pet him, and our conversations would go smoothly after that.

I begin looking into the literature and found that many studies had been conducted on the effects of a dog on people. Some research found that the presence of a dog would increase friendly interaction and helping behavior—but these studies were done with dyads, not small groups. I also learned that the dog was domesticated at least 15,000 years ago (it was the first domesticated animal), and that it was probably the dog that improved humans’ ability to cooperate through its impact on cooperative hunting practices. So, I wondered what effect a dog would have on small work groups.

This is important today because so much work in organizations is done in small teams, often composed of people who may not know one another well. I reasoned that the presence of a dog might help members of teams work together in a more friendly and collaborative manner.

What were the findings that indicated having a dog present improved group interactions?

We conducted three studies. The first two studies involved comparing groups with and without a dog present. In the first study, groups worked on a problem-solving task that involved a lot of interaction. In groups where a dog was present people were more cooperative, liked one another more, and were more affectionate. The second study was identical to the first except that it involved a decision-making task requiring little interaction. Here we found that in the dog-present groups people liked one another more and were more affectionate.

In the third study, we took 40-second video clips of the groups (with and without a dog) in Study 1 and showed them to people who were unfamiliar with the study (the sound was off and the videos were cropped so the dog was not visible). We ask them to rate the group interactions. Based on just a 40-second viewing, the observers rated groups with a dog as more comfortable, cooperative, friendly, active, enthusiastic, and attentive.

For readers who are trying to make a case for #bringyourdogtoworkday, are there benefits of this “social lubricant” effect of dogs in the workplace to the employer? To put in another way, did you see a correlation — in this study or others — of how improved group interactions increase performance, innovation, or some other metric?

Here are some take-aways:

  • The presence of a friendly companion dog improved the quality of interaction among members of newly formed teams.
  • The quality of interaction among team members, especially cooperation, is a critical ingredient in the success of any social enterprise.
  • Will bringing a dog to work improve short-term performance metrics? Probably not.

Why is eye contact so vital — both dog to human and for team members?

Friendly eye contact signals interest and affection. You are much more likely to create a positive connection with another person when you make friendly eye contact. Also, making eye contact allows you to read another person’s emotional state. You are better able to regulate your own interaction with another person when you can accurately adjust to his or her emotional state.

You studied the effect of dogs in your on-campus lab. Do you think the effect would be similar when the meeting is virtual?

That is an interesting question! If the dog is visible during virtual meeting I think it would have some positive effects. However, part of a dog’s effect has to do with people being able to physically interact with the dog and with the dog responding to individual group members. Still, in a virtual setting, the presence of a dog would probably stimulate some positive emotions—which improve interactions. Just think about the popularity of movies that feature friendly dogs.

Are there other areas of workspace culture you plan on researching in the future?

Our study on dogs in the workplace is part of a broader program of research on bringing more nature into the workplace and re-engineering the workplace so that is more compatible with our evolved human nature. We have done other studies looking at the effects of exposure to greenery, other natural elements, and sunshine at work. And all of these have beneficial effects on the well-being of employees.

Humans evolved over the past 1.2 million years, and for 99.9 percent of this time we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands composed of kith and kin. Although our psychology and physiology remains primarily adapted to life as hunter-gatherers, the environment we live in now is dramatically different.

Yet from the advent of the industrial revolution to the present, most businesses paid scant attention to human nature. The social and physical design of organizations focused on efficiency and cost-savings. This resulted in a mismatch between our work environments and human nature. Adding more nature to the workplace is one way to reduce this mismatch.