The Future of Fitness: Key Insights from an Employer Benchmarking Call

Summary of large employer approaches to delivering fitness opportunities to employees – and what those offering will look like beyond the pandemic.

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December 22, 2020

Large employers have traditionally offered fitness opportunities to employees right at the worksite - whether it’s working out at an on-site fitness center, getting support from a personal trainer, joining in on an exercise class or finding opportunities to squeeze in stretch and restorative breaks throughout the workday. When many employees moved to a work-from-home environment, these physical activities were sorely missed. To employers’ credit, many quickly pivoted to offering virtual classes and challenges to fill this gap and help employees stay active during the pandemic.

Employers on the line participated in a poll asking about current fitness offerings (Figure 1, as of December 2020). When it came to on-site offerings, 41% had at least one on-site fitness center open; 22% were offering on-site classes. Resoundingly, virtual offerings were more common – 82% hosted fitness classes online and 78% had created challenges/competitions to stay physically active. Lastly, some employers were providing financial support in the form of reimbursements and discounts to employees who purchase equipment (29%) or for a membership at an outside gym (69%).

Large employers fitness offerings in december 2020 - virtual fitness class 82%. physical activity challenges 78%. gym fees reimbursement 69%. on-site fitness centers/gyms 41%. use of social media to encourage sharing around fitness 39%. fitness equipment reimbursement/subsidy/discounts 29%. On-site fitness classes 22%. 
Figure 1: Large Employers Fitness Offerings in December 2020 

Current On-site Offerings

While many employees are working from home, there are a good number who are reporting to a worksite, particularly among industries with essential and frontline workers. In general, these employers with on-site staff report limited offerings, all operating under safety guidelines:

  • One employer only has a fitness center at the corporate office. While it’s officially open, there is low utilization since only a few people are going into an office. The employer will likely keep it open in the future as it’s operated by a property manager.
  • For one large employer, on-site fitness is in various phases of reopening. Sites that have zero COVID cases/transmission are open. Some are open on a limited basis, as in, it’s closed except for a dedicated hour to exercise. The company is seeing a lot of demand in its APAC offices because employees are using the facilities.
  • One employer is operating some facilities on a limited basis. For those that are closed, the company has converted the exercise spaces into areas for robust virtual programming.
  • Another employer has taken the route of not restricting access to its on-site fitness facilities, but at the same time, employees aren’t reporting to the worksite yet. Safety protocols are in place, like mask requirements. The on-site clinic staff uses the fitness center. Right now, the company is seeing utilization of around 3%-4%; before the pandemic, it was about 40%-50% utilization.
  • Four employers reported restricting access to the on-site fitness centers: One employer is allowing access only to those approved to be on-site, and three employers aren’t allowing family members and/or retirees access to the fitness center.
  • Many employers on the line reported that all on-site fitness centers are closed. A few mentioned that vendors manage the centers (and perhaps decide on the closings). Some employers are also using their on-site fitness staff to run virtual programming.

New Virtual Offerings

Due to employees working remotely and physical distancing requirements, employers have moved workouts to online platforms. The beauty of this change is that access has opened up to many employees – including global employees and even spouses/partners – who may not have had any fitness opportunities offered to them at all. Some employers are also running challenges and reimbursing employees for equipment (like a Peloton bike) purchased for their homes.

Classes

Employers shared experiences offering fitness classes, either live or on-demand:

  • One employer does recordings exclusively and encourages employees to access them anytime, anywhere. Recordings are organized by categories: stretch break, yoga, spin, core, step, Pilates, TRX.
  • Another employer offers 80 classes per week, available between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., to all employees. The classes have high engagement; the most popular are 15-minute stretch breaks, as well as shorter cardio, strength and core classes. The shorter duration allows employees to squeeze in a workout when working at home. The evening classes are also very popular.
  • By pivoting its on-site fitness vendor to 100% virtual, one employer is able to deliver 50 group fitness classes a week. The live classes are run over Zoom; small group training is done over Microsoft Teams.
  • Another employer is also pivoting its fitness center vendor to offer virtual classes. The vendor also offers movement classes for both adults and children via NextJump (Perks at Work).
  • A second employer mentioned including children through its virtual movement class lineup, which includes a child-friendly series that working parents can integrate into a child’s physical education curriculum.
  • One employer with a fitness facility on its corporate campus is taking a one-two punch approach. First, the employer is utilizing on-site vendor staff to offer online classes via its social media platform, as many employees have strong relationships to the center staff and want to maintain those connections. Second, the company is also offering virtual classes via Wellbeats.
  • Thinking short and sweet, one employer promotes 15-minute stretch classes over WebEx, which is the most popular offering.
  • To create variety, one employer has three key components to its fitness offerings: 1) Classpass, which offers free virtual classes to teammates and has had good utilization; 2) Started its own LiveWELL Fitness Streams Channel; and 3) Created a program called “Toned Up Tuesdays,” where staff leads a virtual workout.
  • One employer mentioned its success integrating movement throughout the workday. During a 2-hour total company meeting, the employer built in a 10-minute chair stretch break. The company received positive feedback from employees at all levels, and the activity increased awareness of fitness programs and participation.

Challenges

Fitness challenges are making a comeback during the pandemic – whether it’s getting more “steps,” increasing movement or reaching personal fitness goals. Not only do challenges encourage employees to be more active, but they also bring employees together in a social and collegial way. Here are some examples of challenges that employers have run in 2020:

  • Managed through Movespring, one employer reported great participation in a recent wellness steps challenge hosted in the fall. As a result, the company expanded eligibility nationwide, including more than those working at the corporate campus.
  • One employer expanded its activities beyond steps and developed a movement challenge. There has been high employee demand: the company is now on its third challenge this year. The challenge encourages all employees to increase movement, meditation and hydration.
  • Another employer hosted a virtual challenge starting in March and is planning another one for January. The company uses Grokker. Its challenges are based on “activity minutes” earned from linked fitness trackers or by engaging with a fitness video on Grokker.
  • One employer is using Castlight to not only enable online activity challenges, but also provide incentives for well-being engagement and health assessment completion. The challenge is tied to a charity to drive better engagement. Originally, the company was going to delay the challenge, but employees asked to keep it as scheduled to help them stay engaged and do something fun with colleagues. Employees from over 70 countries took part; the company believes that employees were more engaged due to the charitable purpose.
  • Similar to the last example, one employer initially delayed its annual step challenge in the U.S., but employees were eager to do something social. The company went ahead with the challenge and opened it to spouses as well. The employer has had upward of 30% participation during the pandemic.
  • One employer reported mixed results with challenges (this company uses Virgin Pulse). The platform offers many options for personal challenges, but the corporate challenge did not get significant participation.
  • Some employers are running challenges without a platform. One company hosted a virtual “fun run” that was self-reported. It didn’t require a smart device or a tracker. Another employer turned to an internal Yammer group to run virtual scavenger hunts (that promote movement). The company started a “Holiday Hunt” this week.

Platforms

The following platforms were mentioned on the call:

Well-being platforms:

Movement/step Challenges

Software for Live Classes

  • Microsoft Teams (2 employers using)
  • Zoom (2 employers using)
  • WebEx

Wellbeats

  • One employer gave kudos to Wellbeats’ data. The company has about 1,000 employees engage each month.
  • Another employer rolled out Wellbeats a month ago, and 1,600 employees have signed up so far. It’s free to employees.
  • Two employers haven’t had as strong engagement as the others: One attributed it to little promotion, the other saw strong interest in the beginning, but ongoing engagement has been a challenge.

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Liability

A few employers voiced concern about the company’s responsibility if an employee hurts themselves while participating in these fitness platforms. Here are how three employers approached liability waivers:

  • For live classes hosted through Zoom, employees receive a meeting invite with a liability notice attached to it. Employees must accept it in order to participate.
  • Waivers are required in order to get invited to the class. At the beginning of each class, there is liability information posted on the screen.
  • Before all virtual classes, a verbal and visual liability agreement is provided.

Spouses/Partner Access

Employers on the line weighed the benefit of offering virtual fitness opportunities to spouses:

  • Three employers encourage spouse/partner participation in virtual solutions.
  • One employer includes spouses in challenges.
  • An employer using Grokker provides three invites to spouses/partners/dependents.

Equipment Reimbursement

As seen in Figure 1, about one-third of employers are reimbursing employees for purchasing fitness equipment. This can play an important role in an employer’s physical well-being approach, as some employees may need equipment like treadmills, stationary bikes and free weights to help them reach their fitness goals. Employers shared the following practices related to equipment:

  • One employer uses GlobalFit to allow employees to participate in other online subscription classes and to purchase home gym equipment.
  • Many employers inquired about partnering with Peloton to provide discounted bikes to employees. Based on employer conversations with the company, it sounds as though Peloton’s corporate rollout was delayed. One employer reported hearing that Peloton was set for an early 2021 launch.
    • One alternative to a corporate discount is creating a social group of employees who use Peloton. One employer did this by creating a group code and communicating its availability internally.

Post-Pandemic Plans

It’s the million-dollar question: What will employee fitness opportunities look like after the pandemic is over? Will employers maintain virtual offerings, or revert back to their pre-pandemic on-site lineup? According to a poll of call participants (Figure 2), most employers are planning to do both – a hybrid of on-site programming and virtual opportunities. This comes as no surprise, knowing that employees vary in their preferences, schedule, abilities and interests.

What On-Site Employers Say...

It will be a game of numbers. Some employees at corporate may stay remote, but most will return.

So much of our future plans depend on what facilities management comes up with.

Large Employers' Plans for Fitness Activities Post-Pandemic 2020. Move to fully or almost fully virtual (minimally on-site services) 23%. Maintain hybrid on-site and virtual 58%. Return to fully operational on-site (minimal reliance on virtual) 7%. Don't know 12%.  
Figure 2: Large Employers Plans for Fitness Activities Post-Pandemic, 2020

What Virtual Only Employers Say...

With most of our employees still being furloughed, on-site doesn’t seem feasible in the near future.

Our wellness team is very small, so reaching a broader audience is easier to achieve with virtual.

Our coaches in various countries are reaching the global population where there may not be a coach.

More employees have been working remotely for the last 10 years. Pre-pandemic, we’ve had to shut down some on-site fitness centers due to low utilization.

What Hybrid Employers Say...

Fitness centers will reopen when it’s safe to do so; virtual programming allows for a much broader reach.

Most on-site resources are promoted locally. Digital options would be available to all employees, so we would promote it globally.

We have five U.S. locations with fitness centers. We started offering virtual opportunities even before the pandemic hit, back in January. We will continue the virtual offerings for the entire employee base but also plan on reopening our fitness centers when the buildings reopen.

We expect to have some employees return back on-site, but we’re uncertain who that will be. Providing virtual opportunities allows for the full field population to take part, and we can offer more variety in classes on a virtual platform (than on-site).

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Current On-site Offerings
  2. New Virtual Offerings
  3. Equipment Reimbursement
  4. Post-Pandemic Plans