August 24, 2020

Lessons Learned from COVID-19: Supporting Employee Well-Being in a Remote Work Environment


By Jen Zygmunt, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing

The fitness industry has been forced to reinvent itself in the wake of COVID-19. With social distancing requirements temporarily shuttering facilities nationwide, clubs and personal trainers have turned to virtual classes and social media to keep followers and members engaged. But even as restrictions begin to ease, a growing number of people are less than eager to return to the gym. In fact, as recently as late April, an overwhelming majority of Americans believed clubs should not reopen, and half said they would not return even when the doors were open.

Source: wildpixel / iStock / Getty

That creates a challenge not only for fitness centers but also for employers, many of which rely on gym membership reimbursements as a key element of their employee well-being initiatives. So, what do well-being efforts look like when people can’t or don’t want to go to the gym?

The answer may increasingly involve the use of virtual fitness. While on-demand, virtual fitness isn’t new, the audience for virtual content has grown significantly in recent months. More specifically, many smaller fitness studios have scrambled to add virtual offerings, while employers have expanded their use of established options for making on-demand, virtual classes a part of their well-being initiatives.

“It’s fitness in your home,” said Amy Martin, health and wellness manager at continued, which uses on-demand fitness to reach a 100% virtual office, with employees in 36 states and more than 60 cities. “Between that convenience and the variety of classes available virtually, there’s no excuse not to move.”

During the process of working with employers to pivot in-person fitness programming to virtual, on-demand options that fit within the context of a remote work environment, several key lessons were revealed that can influence future initiatives for employers of all sizes.

Emphasize variety.

COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions showed the world that “virtual” can work if done right. Employers can satisfy newbies and hardcore gym rats if they offer a variety of workouts and intensity levels, whether it’s high-intensity interval training, yoga, or quick breaks people can do at their desks. Even better, look beyond exercise. With people cooking more meals at home, nutrition content can increase understanding of how to eat better, while easy-to-make recipes or mindfulness classes can help parents dealing with the stress of working from home while trying to homeschool their children.

With thoughtful implementation, employers can see impressive results. One company that implemented virtual fitness saw 4,769 employee log-ins and 10,048 class minutes the first week after launching its program.

Get creative to drive engagement.

Giving users insights into their activity and progress—from minutes completed to fitness assessment results—is an easy way to get them excited about virtual fitness. Employers can also engage employees with a bit of friendly competition in the form of monthly challenges, personalized marketing communications, or integration with philanthropic incentives.

For example, when international electronics group Rhode & Schwartz launched its virtual, on-demand program in April, the company tied well-being participation to corporate giving by offering to donate $5,000 to the Red Cross if employees participated in on-demand, virtual fitness classes. As a result, it saw 40% engagement in the first week after launch.

Include the whole family.

With schools closed, many parents have had to juggle their work with their kids’ schoolwork. In many cases, those kids also had to meet activity requirements for school gym classes. That was the case for Megan Fesinmeyer, senior manager of business analysis and information at Amgen. She used on-demand hip-hop dance classes to help one of her daughters meet school requirements and a dance-party class to keep her other daughter active.

To be effective for the whole family, fitness content should be designed with different age groups in mind. A second-grader won’t thrive in a high-level cycling class, but he or she might love a class with an instructor who makes fitness fun and is willing to be silly. Especially now, when families are spending more time together than ever, virtual fitness can effectively bring everyone together and help release tension.

Tend to the whole person.

Well-being isn’t just about staying physically fit, and especially in the midst of a global health crisis, it’s important to be mindful of mental health for people of all ages. Considering that nearly half of Americans say the COVID-19 pandemic is harming their mental health or that adults in this country are eight times more likely to screen positive for serious mental illness this year than they were in 2018, it’s clear people need resources to deal with stress.

There is an increasing amount of on-demand content to address all aspects of well-being, and when it comes to managing mental health, social well-being, or nutrition, having access to support at home can have a significant impact on participation and satisfaction.

COVID-19 is surging again in many parts of the country, but even when it eventually subsides, many companies have plans to make remote work the new normal. As a result, employee well-being will continue to look very different than it did just a few months ago. It’s possible the fitness industry will never return to exactly what it was pre-coronavirus, but even if it does, virtual, on-demand fitness will likely continue to be an important aspect of workplace and individual well-being efforts. Understanding how to use it effectively will be key to success for employers.

Jen Zygmunt is chief revenue officer and president of sales and marketing for Wellbeats, a content and software-as-a-service company that delivers on-demand, virtual fitness programming for corporate wellness programs. Wellbeats is committed to delivering “fitness that fits” through more than 600 fitness and nutrition classes that can be accessed anytime through iOS, Android, Windows devices, Apple® TV, website portals, or on-site options. 

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