When Arnold Schwarzenegger first came to America and started becoming the world’s most successful bodybuilder, he and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu worked during the day as bricklayers. Effectively, their work was their workout. Plus, of course, they hit the gym hard and heavy.
Unfortunately, most people are not that lucky — we work hunched over our computers in office jobs which detract from our health, instead of helping our health. My colleagues at ff Venture Capital and I want to work in an office which makes working in an office job a workout — a (partial) substitute for visiting a gym. We think there’s a way to design office work so that physical fitness is integrated throughout your day. We’d value your ideas on how to do that.
The way in which most people stay in shape is fundamentally broken. They work a desk job for 8-12 hours, and then go to a gym three times a week for 45 minutes to (supposedly offset) that desk job. As the New York Times recently wrote, sitting kills.
According to research done by the Vermont Board of Education, exercise is not only healthy for you, but it also increases your productivity. Increased blood flow leads to greater cognitive abilities — the Greeks knew this. The idea of making the white collar office a healthier environment has started to enter mainstream social consciousness. A small number of offices across the country have slowly begun to endorse the idea of exercising while doing a white collar job (not before or after), e.g., walking on a treadmill while doing your job at Mutual of Omaha.
An additional incentive to remaking the workplace into a healthy, exercise-supportive environment is the cost benefit. We think that many of the design changes we envision cost little or nothing, and can save us and our team money on their health care in the long run. More on this below.
We just moved from our prior office to take over the 3rd floor of our building at 989 6th Avenue, a 5,000 square foot space. We had the luxury of designing this office from a blank slate, because it was completely empty when we moved in. We’re filling it with our own team, plus a couple of startups in our portfolio (Parse.ly and Phone.com) – and soon other startups that we’d be honored to include in our future portfolio.
First, here are our core operating principles:
– Healthy alternatives should be truly viable alternatives, not luxury products. Almost all of our ideas cost the same or less than setting up a conventional office.
- Motion is better than no motion; stasis kills. (I would call that a life principle, not just a fitness principle.)
- Standing is healthier than sitting. Excess sitting can even shorten your life.
- Standing on a flat surface is healthier than standing on a distorted surface. Up to a third of women suffer permanent problems as a result of their prolonged wearing of heels, ranging from hammer toes and bunions to irreversible damage to leg tendons. Similarly, women and men who wear shoes with even low heels also suffer adverse effects. We want to make an office receptive to women and men wearing whatever shoes they like, including but not limited to comfortable shoes without heels, also known as “minimal shoes“.
Our portfolio company BetterWorks, an employee perks and rewards solution, often points to Gallup research showing higher profits, sales, and customer loyalty from companies with higher engagement. Engagement itself is a proven byproduct of wellness, and as recently reported by The World Economic Forum: “Employees are eight times more likely to be engaged when wellness is a priority in the workplace.”
Based on these core principles, here are some features we are placing in the office:
Every person in the office will have a choice of 3 setups:
- A standing desk (~$200-$750) with a anti-fatigue comfort mat (~$20-$40). (more reading). For a look at a typical standing desk configuration, click here.
- An exercise ball (~$40) to sit on in lieu of a conventional chair. Research has found that exercise balls help build core stability muscles and, in turn, lower back pain and injury. We’ll also get a ball base for each exercise ball, to prevent the balls rolling around loose. The cost for this combination is much less than a conventional office chair. We like the Trainerball, which has ball exercises printed directly on the ball. See 10 Reasons to Use an Exercise Ball as Your Chair.
- A conventional-seated office chair (~$150-$700).
We plan to encourage people to have multiple large computer screens at each desk, space and budget permitting. We will also encourage telephone headsets (~$90-250), which are more ergonomically sound than a standard telephone set up. Multiple computer screens increase productivity and efficiency.
We will also offer each person in the office an ergonomic keyboard. We suggest one of these, in ascending order of distance from a conventional keyboard:
- Goldtouch Adjustable Keyboard ($95)
- Kinesis Advantage Keyboard ($269)
For a mouse, we really like the Designer Appliances E Quill AirO2bic mouse ($90). Another option for data input is dictation software and microphone, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking (~$50).
We also suggest people consider using:
- Hand grippers (~$15) for flexing during phone calls to relieve stress and improve grip strength.
- Wobble boards (~$55) for use when at a standing desk.
- Pedometers (~$20) or pedometer apps, for tracking miles walked per day. People wearing a pedometer walk about 27% more per day than people not wearing a pedometer.
People in our office can wear whatever they want as long as they are reasonably modest and bathe regularly. (We do draw the line at nudists on the late shift .) We definitely do not want an office in which people feel pressure to wear any particular type of clothing, including but not limited to high heels or even low heels.
Personally, I like minimalist or ‘barefoot-style’ shoes. I particularly like the Sockwas ($50), which look like inconspicuous sneakers, and the Vibram Fivefingers ($83-92), which look like gecko feet, for training. However, we recognize that not all offices will be as tolerant of idiosyncratic footwear. When I’m in a fundraising meeting or other more conservative environment, I wear my Bally Pakos (style 6152604), which have the most comfortable minimal sole of any mens’ business shoe I’ve found.
I’m impressed by Sergey Brin’s aplomb; he has appeared at several conferences wearing his Vibram Fivefingers. As the old joke goes, the difference between crazy and eccentric is only a few million dollars.
Conference rooms and meetings
We are setting up three conference rooms: one with exercise balls as chairs (~$40-$150); one conference room with a standing conference table (~$950 on up) and anti-fatigue mats; and one conventional conference room with conventional office chairs. I’ve seen research that indicates standing meetings run much faster than sitting meetings.
In addition to the alternative conference rooms, when the New York weather allows and when a meeting topic doesn’t require taking extensive notes, we will have walking meetings.
Given that social capital correlates with physical health (see Bowling Alone), we want to encourage people in the office to get to know one another. At the front of the office, we’ll create an office map showing the names of our portfolio companies, and the photos of the employees that work at each.
Some other ideas we like, but can’t execute in our office for logistical reasons:
- A shower, for people to clean up after jogging / biking to work.
- Pull-up bars (~$30), for periodic pull-ups/muscle-ups when you have an occasion. In our office most of the doorjambs are glass, but if we expand to another floor we may have the option of installing pull-up bars on doorjambs made of wood. New York startup Workmarket has a pullup machine right at the front of their office, with a list by it of the records set by different people who have visited the office.
- We also looked into treadmill desks (~$400-$2,000). The user walks slowly while talking to clients, writing proposals, checking email, or any other activity one would normally do at a desk. You could integrate ReRev into these treadmills; the company retrofits exercise equipment with a device that recycles excess energy created. At least for now, we’ve rejected this idea because of our concern about noise pollution.
- A nap room, for when our team just need a little rest.
- A corporate gym. In lieu of our own gym, we’re going to investigate getting a corporate discount at a neighborhood gym.
- IdeaPaint has developed a new kind of paint that allows any wall to be used as a dry erase board. This new technology encourages more open dialogue and presentation at meetings as no one is isolated from the board, and is also very economical. We likely won’t need this, because our conference rooms have glass walls.
Food and Snacks
In the holistic spirit of our initiative, we want to introduce healthy food options into our office environment when we serve food. Among the writers we like on this topic are John Durant of the Hunter-Gatherer Blog and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both of them advocate for all-natural, unprocessed, healthier alternatives to the more common industrialized foods.
Here is a list of snacks that we think are consistent with our food philosophy and appropriate as hors d’oeuvres, for example, when we host our periodic invitation-only idea dinners:
- organic vegetables, e.g., edamame, avocados, carrots, celery
- organic fruit, both fresh and dried
- dips: guacamole, bean dips, hummus, organic sugar-free applesauce
- low-fat cottage cheese/yogurt
- mixed nuts, unsalted
- mini brown rice/sesame cakes, unsalted
One last idea that we have decided to integrate into the new office, which we believe will be very popular, is that we will serve free beer and/or red wine on Fridays. Studies suggest that light to moderate alcohol consumption can be quite healthy, particularly for the heart.
Because white collar work often involves travel, we are also encouraging our employees to adopt a fitness routine while on the road, since travel normally disrupts ones regular workout routine. We encourage our team to bring whatever equipment helps them to stay fit on the road, e.g., a travel workout kit.
As investors in early-stage technology companies, we are particularly interested in some of the new technologies that have emerged that promote fitness, and we’ll promote their use. For example:
- Camspace, an ff portfolio company, allows everyday objects to control a computer’s actions through use of standard web-cams. At the front of the office, in lieu of the classic Foosball table, we’ll set up a Camspace game.
- BetterWorks offer large company group-buying for small businesses to take advantage of, for example, corporate gym discounts.
- Games / apps that promote fitness, e.g., Keas, Fitocracy, Runkeeper, Nexercise, etc. Some of these apps leverage game mechanics to promote fitness, and those game mechanics are particularly powerful if everyone in an office signs up for a given app.
More Radical Ideas
We have a lot of other ideas which are probably too radical for our office; these ideas might make some people uncomfortable. However, you might be able to use some of these ideas in your own home/office.
- A shoes-discouraged policy, perhaps with a shoe shelf (~$30-$300) at the office entrance. In most Japanese homes, no one wears shoes. Lloyd Blankfein, today CEO of Goldman Sachs, famously used to wear just his socks around the office. Victor Niederhoffer, a prominent trader, had a sign at the entrance to his Park Avenue office, saying, “Please remove your shoes.”
- Squat toilets . These are extremely common in Asia, but highly unusual in the US. Squatting when going to the bathroom is significantly healthier than sitting on a conventional western toilet.
- Group morning exercises. Many Japanese workplaces start with a fixed set of morning calisthenics. However, we think this won’t be well received in our working environment.
We looked into a lot of other ideas not listed here, which we rejected as not being based on research/sound reasoning. One idea we looked into and had hear about was ‘full spectrum lighting.’ We had heard that this new technology, which tries to mimic natural sunlight, was supposed to enhance productivity. Ultimately, though, we rejected the idea as multiple studies found inconclusive evidence on its benefits.
We also considered adding air purifiers and ionizers, which remove pollen, dirt, dust particles, and allergens. However, a prominent study showed that such air purifiers often emit ozone which could be damaging to the human body, negating any real benefit. We decided against including them.
We looked into the new 2bU line of health-focused vending machines. The company’s mission is to only provide “Organic, Gluten free, Vegan, Kosher, Locally produced, Performance driven, Allergen free” products. However, their products looked too processed for our preferences.
Winston Churchill said, “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” We’ve now reached the point that 63.1% of adults in the U.S. were either overweight or obese in 2009; we’re truly at the point of exhausting all alternatives. As my wife says, “The US doesn’t have a debt problem; we have a healthcare problem.”
The rebounding movement towards a healthier lifestyle will create significant investment opportunities, and we’re actively looking for those that fit our portfolio, as well as those that benefit our team. Our investment in BetterWorks was in part driven by our belief in the importance of employee benefits in a tight labor market for highly qualified people.
We’d love your insights on what else we should put in the office—and what we should invest in!
Update: we’ve posted photos.
We thank Duncan MacDonald-Korth, Captain, University of Oregon Men’s Tennis Team, for his help researching this blog post.
(Sergey Brin wearing Vibram Five Fingers photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson)