Employers’ strategy for getting employees healthy during COVID: virtual fitness

Fitness classes at Pinterest’s luxe San Francisco headquarters are among the social media company’s most popular perks for employees. Yoga, aerobics and other classes are on offer so that workers can burn calories or downward dog to their heart’s delight.

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit and employees went remote, Pinterest didn’t want workers to lose one of their favorite perks. “That’s one part of our benefits offering (that) employees really relied on and really enjoyed. We didn’t want to take that away because we couldn’t be in a physical office,” says Alice Vichaita, head of global benefits at Pinterest.

So the company turned to virtual class sessions offered via Zoom or Google Hangouts. “We set up reminders in our various Slack channels so we can remind [workers] 15 minutes before class starts, see it and join,” Vichaita explains. “We have a wellness calendar that people can opt into and see the programming coming up.”

In addition to its regular slate of offerings–yoga, meditation and so on–the company in early May added a weekly dance class for parents and their kids on Google Hangouts. It’s a move to help Pinterest’s working parent population–a group that’s especially struggling during the pandemic as they juggle taking care of work and their children simultaneously.

“I think employees really enjoy stuff they can do with their kids–and something that can occupy their kids and get a little break in the day,” Vichaita says.

Pinterest is one of several employers turning to virtual fitness classes as the pandemic continues to force employees to stay home, away from their employers’ on-site fitness centers or missing out on gym memberships offered as a benefit. Best Buy is another employer that moved its on-site operations to a virtual platform, and others have partnered with wellness companies so employees can live-stream fitness classes at their convenience.

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While the coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on other aspects of wellbeing, notably mental and financial health, a handful of employers are making sure physical health stays in the spotlight, too.

“All the wellness dimensions–physical, financial, emotional, social and environmental–are interconnected, but physical wellness is an ideal starting point,” says Ann Wyatt, vice president of program management and engagement at HealthFitness, a wellness provider that worked with Best Buy and Molson Coors, among others.

Focusing on fitness is seen as a smart move during the pandemic, advocates note, giving employees an opportunity to be active, boosting their mental health along the way.

“Most of us realize that it feels good on so many different levels just to get moving–going for a walk, a run or taking a group exercise class. The transition to work from home was–and still is–hard,” Wyatt says. “Providing an outlet for employees to continue with their physical wellness is crucial and over time will likely have a positive impact on the other wellness dimensions.”

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Regina Ihrke, senior director and wellbeing leader, North America, at Willis Towers Watson, agrees that wellness components have intensified due to the pandemic. “Leaders have been bold in redefining their organization’s purpose and their commitment to the health and safety of their employees, families and customers, which has put a laser focus on wellbeing,” she says.

Research from the consulting firm finds that 60% of employers are offering new easy-to-implement virtual solutions, such as online workouts, to support employees who work from home. Another 19% are planning or considering these solutions. Meanwhile, half promote healthy nutrition and weight management for at-home employees, and 25% are planning or considering adding such programs.

Making the transition from in-person to virtual

Best Buy’s 16,000-square-foot on-site fitness center that serves its 1,400-plus corporate employees–and regularly offers 10-15 weekly group exercise classes and six office break sessions–has been empty since mid-March, when the pandemic began. But the Richfield, Minn.-based retail company acted quickly to make offerings available to its employees who moved remote due to COVID-19.

Best Buy activated its “Wellness Zone” Facebook page to host daily live group exercise classes and archive the recordings for on-demand viewing. It also offers challenges and educational content on a daily basis, the company says. Personal trainers also connect with employees via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, offering customized workouts that can be accessed via private YouTube links.

“Many have continued participating in the same classes and personal and group training sessions as they would have onsite at our fitness center,” says Bri Johnson, HealthFitness program manager for Best Buy. “They especially enjoy having on-demand class recordings available via Facebook and Microsoft Teams, plus a few Zoom class options where they can interact with the instructor and, of course, their colleagues.”

Now, about 1,100 employees participate in the programs, Johnson says.

In general, employers say moving fitness classes online and providing virtual wellness offerings is one way to provide flexibility and help employees during an unprecedented time.

“We already are pretty flexible as a culture, but I think we learned to be even more flexible because everyone is going through different things,” Pinterest’s Vichaita says. “There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all. We should lead with empathy and work with employees to see what works for their situation.”

Related: Inside Pinterest’s COVID-19 benefits strategy

Turning to apps, platforms

Other companies that don’t have on-site fitness classes to move remote are partnering with platforms that offer virtual wellness options for employees. Wellness companies Wellbeats and Grokker, both of which offer virtual wellbeing components and partner with employers to provide them as a benefit for employees, say they have seen a big uptick in employers using their tools since the pandemic began in March.

Both platforms offered access to their tools for free at the start of the outbreak, which prompted a big boost in interest. With those promotions, Grokker added nearly 1,000 companies, while Wellbeats overall added 163,000 employees to its platform.

“[Employers are] discovering the benefits of offering anywhere, anytime fitness content.” – Jen Zygmunt, Wellbeats’ chief revenue officer

Biotech company Amgen, for instance, previously offered Wellbeats exclusively for remote workers, but expanded the program in wake of the pandemic. It had more than 4,000 downloads of the Wellbeats app in one week after expanding the program to all employees. Health and human services provider Maximus saw 4,768 employee logins and 10,048 class minutes in the first week of its Wellbeats launch in late April. Grokker also cites a “significant increase in demand,” including employers that expanded offerings to all employees and adding companies like Pfizer to its roster.

“They’re discovering the benefits of offering anywhere, anytime fitness content alongside nutrition resources for people who are doing more cooking at home or mindfulness classes for people who are feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s happening right now,” says Jen Zygmunt, Wellbeats’ chief revenue officer. In April, Wellbeats users recorded 5 million activity minutes, “double the 2.5 million minutes we see in a typical month,” Zygmunt says.

The classes have been a big hit with employees, the companies say. They often are viewed as a way to normalize routines–and keep workers healthy–during the traumatic current situation. Plus, virtual, home options are especially important as indoor gyms and fitness facilities are some of the most dangerous places in terms of likelihood to spread the coronavirus, says Lorna Borenstein, CEO and founder of Grokker, which also counts Delta Airlines, eBay and Subway as clients.

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“Ultimately, this is much bigger than missing a few workouts,” Borenstein says. “People are suddenly isolated indoors with no connection to the outside world, leaving them feeling stressed, anxious and unable to focus. And while they are worried about their jobs and trying to balance work and life, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a healthy diet, not getting enough sleep and worrying about finances.

“None of this is going away any time soon,” she continues. “The only way to reliably and equitably reach employees where they are is through digital wellbeing solutions that treat the whole spectrum of wellbeing.”

Although coronavirus is to thank for a bigger transition to virtual fitness, chances are the trend will continue post-pandemic–especially as coronavirus pushes a bigger number of employees to stay remote.

“I envision this trend as having staying power,” HealthFitness’ Wyatt says. “Some of our clients will have a portion of their workforce that may continue working from home for the foreseeable future and value having the flexibility to offer virtual fitness solutions in addition to an on-site experience at the company fitness center.”

While COVID-19 is requiring the majority of employees to stay at home, company leaders increasingly say they likely will continue to embrace work-from-home options. For instance, data finds that 82% of company leaders surveyed by research firm Gartner say their organizations plan to permit employees to work remotely at least part of the time even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People in benefits would always say how it’s important to meet people where they are at,” Borenstein says. “Well now that they are at home and working remotely, virtual fitness and wellbeing options are the only way to reach them. That is why they are here and here to stay.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.