Working Out With Your Co-Workers Is as Bad as You Think

The latest in workplace wellness programs brings new meaning to the office grind

NSFW: Exercising at Your Office

On a recent Thursday afternoon at Euromoney Institutional Investor's Manhattan offices, workers trickle into a conference room toting yoga mats and wearing workout gear. The furniture is shoved into corners, opening up the beige industrial carpet for a dozen people to take a vinyasa class. Midway through the series of sun salutations and warrior poses, everyone is sweaty—especially the guy who didn't change out of his work outfit, and is now suffering the indignity of a lavender button-down clinging to his torso. After an hour of flow, the group collapses onto the floor for Corpse Pose. Lying on their backs, arms and legs flopped alongside their bodies, they look like a napping kindergarten class.

Euromoney holds on-site yoga for its 500 New York-based employees twice a week as part of its corporate wellness program. The class, subsidized by the company, costs $5 to attend, and participants earn points that help them save up to $360 a year on their health insurance premiums.

Companies such as Euromoney are spending more on employee wellness initiatives, including ways for staffers to stay healthy at the office. Workday walking and eating challenges, stress management programs, and in-office workouts are a few examples. Getting employees to live healthier lives, the theory goes, can save companies money. How much is up for debate: One Harvard study from 2010 found more than $3 in savings for every dollar spent, but more recent research by RAND put that figure at just $1.50. Still, plenty of companies are expanding their wellness budgets. A March study by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health found that employers in the U.S. will spend an average of $693 per person on wellness incentives in 2015, up from $430 five years ago.

"We're just an arrow in your quiver of wellness," said Jaron Tate, owner of Boot Camp Challenge, a company that runs fitness programs at several Fort Collins (Colo.)-based businesses. Often, companies incentivize participation by offering discounted health insurance or free workouts. "All companies set it up differently," said Serena Puerta, the founder of Bootcamp Republic, which sets up corporate fitness programs at companies nationwide. "They can make it available to everyone, and anyone in the company can opt in to do it. Or they can offer it to highest-risk people first. It really depends on the goal of the company and what they’re trying to do."

Everyone at Euromoney has access to evening yoga, which costs the company $3,000 for eight weeks of classes. In addition to the potential return on that investment down the line, the more immediate benefits of workplace exercise programs include team building and enhanced morale, according to Janice Banaria, the HR and benefits administrator at Euromoney. "Honestly, five years from now seeing some return, that’s not really what drives us," she said. "The idea of having happier, healthier employees is really why we do it." Keeping workers at the office, instead of losing them to midday gym breaks, doesn't hurt, either.

Photographer: Drew Beebe/Bloomberg Business

Doing an activity as embarrassing as working out, alongside co-workers, results in various forms of suffering. Accepted office etiquette is suspended during company workouts. People do awkward poses, sweat, grunt, and make ugly faces when trying to hold a really long squat—things most would rather not do in the company of Debbie from marketing. Or their boss. "I’m not sure I always felt comfortable with the idea of working out with co-workers," said a sweat-streaked Alan Wright, an editor at Euromoney. Wright, who uses a beach towel as a workout mat, only goes to yoga because none of his close colleagues attend. "I don't actually work with any of these folks directly. I don't want to mix the personal and the exercise," he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor with more than a post-yoga glow. But that discomfort is what makes it such a powerful bonding experience, argues Tate. "When we’re three weeks into our program and sweat's dripping out of your nose, you bond," he said.

Workplace exercise programs range from midday "no sweat" workouts to high-intensity boot camps. Instructors often offer the group three different levels for each exercise, like ’80s aerobic workout videos, accommodating varying fitness levels. "We really try to cater to movements that can be scaled to different degrees, so everyone can participate all the way through," said Jonathan McDaniel, a fitness instructor at Bootcamp Republic, who also teaches at CrossFit. During a recent workout, for example, on a patch of grass next to Manhattan's West Side Highway, some employees panted through a modified version of an exercise called mountain climbers, while others deftly completed sets without breaking a sweat.

At Fluent, an advertising agency in New York, I joined a dozen of the company's 70 employees in the downtown Manhattan office one recent evening for 60 minutes of high-intensity circuit training. Fluent doesn't offer a health insurance kickback to attendees, but covers the full cost of the boot camp, which is organized by Bootcamp Republic. Unlike at Euromoney, the demographics of the class skewed young, with most of the group coming in at well under 40.

An all-muscles instructor named Guillermo led us through an hour of planks, push-ups, jumping jacks, and bicycle crunches while cheesy techno dance music piped out of an iPhone. There was no dignity. People shot their butts up into the air with abandon. It didn't take long for the president of the company to sweat through his white T-shirt. About halfway in, we paired up. I was partnered with the company's general counsel, the only middle-aged man in the group. For one exercise, I lay down on the office carpet and clutched his clammy ankles while he pushed my spandex-covered legs to the ground for core work—a bit intimate for strangers. Overall, the workout was fun. But these people aren't my co-workers. I wouldn't want to touch any sweaty body parts of any of my colleagues, especially not an older male.

Photographer: Drew Beebe/Bloomberg Business

Attendees at Fluent and Euromoney say they don't mind working out with co-workers. For one, it's convenient. "I don't have time to work out outside of work, so this is good," said Valerie Ruiz, an account manager at Euromoney. Ruiz, wearing stretchy pants with a swirly design, set up her mat right in the front of class. She didn't seem to care that a dozen people were potentially staring at her Downward Dog. She's just there to exercise: "By the time I get home, it’s 7. I have to take care of my daughter. By the time I get done with stuff, it’s too late. The gym is closed." It's also sanctioned workout time during working hours. People don't have to feel ashamed for leaving the office midday or early for the gym. A few people also mentioned the benefit of getting to know people at the company in a different setting.

In general, group fitness should help teams perform better at work, says Lindred Greer, a researcher who studies team dynamics at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. "If you have a deeper relationship with your co-workers, it's easier to understand what they’re saying," she said. Jeffrey Polzer, a researcher who studies organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, cautions that "sometimes the promise of these outside activities, it doesn't always translate to improving the actual work of the team." The skills learned while suffering through spiderman push-ups, in other words, might not translate to the work of advertising.

And if team building is the ultimate goal, that not everyone participates isn't ideal. "If a pattern develops where a part of the team is doing something after work, they become more distant from the people who are not doing those activities," added Polzer. It's hard to imagine an office with full, enthusiastic participation from everyone. Some people prefer the anonymity of panting on a treadmill at the gym—and always will.