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Reinventing the Office: How to Lose Fat and Increase Productivity at Work

Fitness/life guru Tim Ferriss just posted my guest article on ff Venture Capital‘s approach to building a fitness office. (Thanks Tim!) I’ve attached below my original, much more detailed blog post about the details of how we’ve designed our office to help people stay healthy and be as productive as possible.

(UPDATE: ff Venture Capital was recently profiled in The Roger, an online magazine that profiles creative workspaces. The feature, titled “Fitness Financed: Motion, Margin, Risk & Reward,” offers an inside look into our office.)

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When Arnold Schwarzenegger first came to America and began his ascent to be 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 that not only do not help, but actively detract from our health. My colleagues at ff Venture Capital and I designed our office to make working a workout — a (partial) substitute for visiting a gym. We think there’s a way to design an office so that physical fitness is integrated throughout day. We’d value your ideas on how to make our office even more fitness-friendly.

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 attempt to mitigate that desk job. As the New York Times recently wrote, sitting kills. In a study that tracked over 17,000 Canadians for 12 years, researchers found that people who sat more had a higher death risk, independently of whether or not they exercised. According to a 2003-2004 U.S. survey, Americans spend over half of their time awake sitting. In an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researcher Elin Ekblom-Bak found that “after four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals” that cause the genes regulating glucose and lipose levels in the body to shut down. Anything that increases the activity level in the workplace is likely to be beneficial.

Besides the obvious fitness benefits, according to research done by the Vermont Board of Education, exercise is not only healthy for you, but it also increases your productivity. An additional incentive to remaking the workplace into a healthy, exercise-supportive environment is the cost benefit. Many of the design changes we have implemented cost little or nothing.

The idea of making the typical 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 your office job, e.g., walking on a treadmill while doing your job at Mutual of Omaha.

We moved last year from our prior office to take over the 3rd floor of our building in midtown Manhattan, a 5,000 square foot space. We’re filling it with our own team, plus a couple of startups in our portfolio (Parsely, Phone.com, some in stealth mode).

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. We take this as a life principle, not just a fitness principle.

Standing is healthier than sitting. In addition to the health benefits, standing during meetings also keeps them short and to the point.

Standing on a flat surface is healthier than standing on a distorted surface. As a result of prolonged heel wearing, nearly one-third of women suffer permanent problems, ranging from hammer toes and bunions to irreversible damage to leg tendons. Similarly, 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 or barefoot shoes.

People who know their employers care about their wellness and comfort are happier and more productive. People in our office can wear and do whatever they want, as long as they are reasonably modest, bathe regularly, and are considerate to others. (We do draw the line at nudists on the late shift.) Our portfolio company BetterWorks cites a report 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, we’ve listed here some of the features of the office:

Desk Setup

Every person in the office has a choice of 3 setups:

1) A standing desk (~$200-$750) with anti-fatigue comfort mat (~$20-$40). (more reading). For another look at a typical standing desk configuration, click here.

adjdesk
We use electronically adjustable desks, built from an IKEA top and Workrite frame and legs (ordered through WB Mason). These were the most attractive standing desk we found at a reasonable price. They go up and down with the push of a button, which make it easy to change to a sitting position if needed.

2) 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 thereby reduce lower back pain and injury. We’ve also purchased a ball base (~$11) to prevent the balls rolling around loose. The cost for this combination is much less than a conventional office chair. We particularly like the Trainerball (~$35), which has ball exercises printed directly on the ball.

 

3) A conventional seated office chair (~$150-$800). We encourage people using a regular chair to consider sitting on a balance cushion (~$15).

We encourage people to have multiple large computer screens (~$180 each) at each desk, space and budget permitting. Multiple computer screens increase productivity and efficiency.

We strongly encourage using a monitor stand (~$25). The GTMax stand ($60) supports up to 30 lbs, is fully adjustable up to 22 inches, and allows for desk space usage underneath the monitor. Unfortunately, it’s only strong enough for laptops, not stand-alone monitors. The cheapest monitor stand (free) is just to stack some books underneath your monitor. There are countless options for monitor stands that only give a few inches clearance from the desk, but for anything higher, the only options we’ve found so far are not adjustable and/or not strong enough.

We also encourage telephone headsets (~$90-250), which are more ergonomically sound than a standard telephone set up. We recommend fl.ux software (freeware), which adjusts your screen color and intensity to the time of day. This helps keep your body tuned to the normal daylight/nighttime light cycle; your computer screen looks like sunlight during the day and like your indoor lights at night.

We offer each person in the office an ergonomic keyboard. We recommend one of these, in ascending order of distance from a conventional keyboard:

Kinesis Advantage Keyboard ($269)

Goldtouch Adjustable Keyboard ($95)

Datahand ($995)

advantagekb

For a mouse, we really like the Designer Appliances E Quill AirO2bic mouse ($90), used with a TrainerBall Mousepad ($10), which includes suggested ergonomic exercises. 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. A tennis ball or juggling balls are cheaper alternatives.
grippers
Wobble boards ($12-$55) for use when at a standing desk. These work out your lower body continuously.

- 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. Paul Matthews of OfficeFitness.co.uk observes, “Office workers get nowhere near to the 10,000 steps a day recommendation (more like 1-3000). A pedometer is a great motivator and if all your employees are wearing them it sets up healthy competition.”

-MIR Weighted Vest (~$130 on up) for providing an additional option for exercising, both at home and at the office. I’ve recently started wearing a 90-pound Mir vest at home and when running errands in my neighborhood. I don’t wear it at the office, mainly because I’d rapidly destroy my clothing through abrasion and perspiration, plus it’s definitely distracting to wear something so heavy. Using a weighted vest while working at a standing desk can be a meaningful workout.

Shoes

Many of us use and recommend minimalist, a.k.a., ‘barefoot’ shoes, which have very thin, slipper-like soles. I particularly like Sockwas ($40-50). The black Sockwa Amphibian is my all-time favorite shoe for both work and weekend wear: it has a minimal sole, is inexpensive, and doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to itself. I use the Vibram Fivefingers ($83-92), which look like gecko feet, for training/outdoor activities.

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 use my Bally Pakos Lace-up (~$500) which have the most comfortable minimal sole of any men’s business shoe we’ve encountered. For women, I’d suggest these Terra Plana or Vivo shoes.

Sergey Brin’s aplomb impresses us; he has appeared at several conferences wearing his Vibram Fivefingers, fully aware of how unusual they look. As the old joke goes, “What’s the difference between ‘crazy’ and ‘eccentric? A few million dollars.”

Conference rooms and meetings

We have four conference rooms, all with conventional office chairs (~$175). I wanted to have one with exclusively exercise balls as chairs (~$40-$150), but I didn’t get the requisite buy-in. So we try to have at least one ball in each conference room, for those who choose to use them.

We wanted a conference room with a standing conference table (~$950 on up) and anti-fatigue mats, but so far we haven’t had the audience demand. We’ve seen research that indicates standing meetings run much faster than sitting meetings, and we often have more informal standing meetings at our standing desks, discussing screen-dependent documents and individual projects. We’ve found that the standing-only work set up encourages much more active participation and sharing of ideas.

galileo
The Galileo room (above) features many spheres (appropriately). It has been a favorite among visitors. Our model is Franklin Bi, a summer intern.

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 have walking meetings. This is a great way to integrate fitness into your day.

Office Setup

There is significant evidence that humans need exposure to natural light, so we’ve designed the office to maximize windows and natural light. For more ideas, see How to bring natural sunlight into a residential or commercial building.

The office has almost no walls; it’s primarily set up in an open-floor layout. My partner John Frankel has a strong interest in architectural design, which the office also incorporates. The walls that we do have are made of a glass that allows us to write notes on it. This way, we don’t need any whiteboards. We believe the transparent layout helps to create a more transparent culture. If we didn’t have so many writeable glass walls, we’d use IdeaPaint (~$50), a new kind of paint that allows any wall to be used as a dry erase board.

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’re creating an office map showing the names of our portfolio companies, and the photos of the employees that work at each.

office1
office2
Some other ideas we like, but can’t yet execute in our current office for logistical reasons:

- We’d love to implement a sprung floor (~$15/square foot), which is a floor that absorbs shocks, giving it a softer feel. Such floors are considered the best available for dance and other indoor sports. They enhance performance and greatly reduce injuries. Although we don’t do too many jetés in our work (except when a portfolio company IPOs), these floors are a pleasure to use particularly when wearing minimal shoes. A wobble board ($12-$55) or balance cushion (~$15) is a much cheaper substitute.

– 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. Our portfolio company Hashable has a popular pullup bar. 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. Paul Matthews of OfficeFitness.co.uk wrote, “a relatively cheap mini-stepper in conjunction with a stand works well if you’re using laptops and conventional desks. To go from sitting (~80 calories an hour) to standing (120 calories) and then to stepping (220 calories) would mean a substantial calorie burn over the course of the week. Also, having tested this a lot myself, it’s much easier to concentrate at the keyboard stepping than using a walking treadmill – not sure why.”

A nap room, for when our team just needs a little rest.

A corporate gym. In lieu of our own gym, we’re going to investigate getting a corporate discount at one of our neighborhood gyms (e.g., New York Sports Club, Crunch Gym).

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 most on this topic (besides Tim Ferriss, of course) is Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Like most offices, the people in our office have quite a range of dietary preferences: slow-carb, paleo, vegan, kosher, vegetarian, ‘don’t care’. Our portfolio company Parsely even created a brilliant and very cheap startup diet as their version of the Tim Ferriss 4 Hour Body diet. (Their startup diet is the ideal response to people who complain that eating healthily costs too much money.) So, finding a solution that keeps everyone happy is non-trivial.

However, every writer whom we respect advocates for all-natural, unprocessed, healthier alternatives to the more common industrialized foods. In Pollan’s words, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” So we came up with the following set of minimal principles to try to respect everyone’s preferences:

– We always offer a vegetarian/vegan option for every meal.

– We offer healthy desserts (fruit), instead of just the usual pastries.

– We only offer healthy drinks (water, tea, seltzer, plain coconut water, kefir, fresh-squeezed fruit & vegetable juice). Tea is a better moderate source of caffeine than coffee, particularly in the afternoon or evening.

– We minimize all processed foods.

– We don’t serve white bread and its cousins (e.g., white macaroni). We serve whole grain bread and brown rice in lieu of the white alternative (for those who aren’t following the slow-carb diet).

We’ve created a list of local restaurants we like and recommended items from each restaurant, which we keep on a Dropbox folder. Of course, people can eat whatever they like individually. However, for group events, we encourage them to order from one of the restaurants listed on Dropbox.

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, or our intern lunches:

– organic vegetables, e.g., edamame, avocados, carrots, celery

– organic fruit, both fresh and dried

– organic dips: guacamole, bean dips, hummus, organic sugar-free applesauce

– whole cottage cheese/whole yogurt

– mixed nuts, unsalted

– mini brown rice/sesame cakes, unsalted

We keep free beer and wine in the office. Studies suggest that light to moderate alcohol consumption can be quite healthy, particularly for the heart. We’re contemplating signing up for Foodzie, to source new exotic foods.
wine

Einstein, the main conference room, includes a wine rack. We hold regular idea dinners, intern lunches, board meetings, and other events in this room.

Travel

Because our 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 (~$50-$90) or TRX system. I find that one of the advantages of practicing parkour and other bodyweight exercises is that the discipline is completely mobile; all I need to exercise when I travel, really, is a floor and a wall. And even the wall is optional.

Technology

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’re going to set up a Camspace game.

BetterWorks offers large company group-buying for small businesses to take advantage of, for example, corporate gym discounts.

Games / apps that promote fitness, e.g., Lose It!, Keas, Fitocracy, Runkeeper, Nexercise, Striiv, etc. (most free-$10). Some of these apps leverage game mechanics to promote fitness. Those game mechanics are even more powerful if everyone in an office signs up for a given app.

Culture

Every office has a culture; the only question is whether you create and influence the culture, or it happens haphazardly. We’re trying to create a health-focused culture, without making people feel pressured and uncomfortable. In a traditional office, a single person using a fitness setup (e.g., ball chair) might draw unwanted attention, but we’ve designed the culture of our office to encourage experimentation.

We know that eventually we’ll make an offer to someone to work with us, who will turn us down because they’re uncomfortable with our culture. That’s OK; we consider that the price of having a clearly defined culture.

I’m happy to report that about half the people in our office now regularly use standing desks and/or exercise ball chairs. Many people, including me, periodically switch between those options. We think that’s healthy too; too much standing can be bad just like too much sitting. Healthy food choices are another point of adoption we’re proud of. We’re implementing an optional office-wide weekly lunch (BYOB–Bring Your Own Bag) that allows us to build community, as well as get exposure to different foods.

Hunter-gatherer John Durant, who’s writing a book about the paleo life, provided us with some additional ideas that we’ve already begun implementing to nurture a positive and sustainable office culture:

- On office birthdays, develop a new tradition that doesn’t always involve cake and cupcakes. There’s always so much social pressure to eat sugar around office birthdays, and this does not fit with our food principles. It’s worst in medium-sized offices where it’s small enough that people still celebrate everyone’s birthdays but large enough that it seems like every week or so it’s cake time. We’re excited about finding an alternative, and our current plan is to try something different for each of the next few birthdays, and stick whatever is most popular.

- Encourage and provide plants in the office. We have about 10 plants in our office. Durant suggests requiring that employees be responsible for watering them.

We arrange access to the building rooftop for quick breaks or lunch in the sun.

Durant had some other suggestions which we haven’t implemented (so far):

- Allow some pets in the office under certain conditions.

Install artwork of landscape paintings featuring green vegetation, water, and animal life, all from a view from the high ground (which is innately appealing aesthetics). Of course, the challenge is doing this in a way that isn’t cheesy and sets the right style for the office.

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 office, or perhaps easier, your home.

- 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 (~$450). 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. Our portfolio company Kohort does a group daily pushup routine. I’m contemplating implementing it.

Gymnastics Parallettes. These are great for playing around on and building upper body strength.

Rejected Ideas

We looked into a lot of other ideas not listed here, which we rejected as not being based on research and/or sound reasoning. One idea we looked into and had heard 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 health-oriented vending machines (h.u.m.a.n. Healthy Vending, 2bU), as often the choice to eat unhealthily is one of convenience, not conviction. However, most of the products available in these conventional vending machines looked too processed for our preferences. We do think that if you can’t provide some of the healthy food options listed above, these health-oriented vending machines are certainly better than the conventional ones.

We thought about promoting ereaders to reduce eye strain, but the evidence is lacking that e-readers or reading on paper reduce eye-strain vs. reading on a traditional monitor.

Next Steps

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% 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 and other economists have observed, “The US doesn’t have a debt problem; we have a healthcare problem.”

The hardest aspect of about encouraging others (and yourself) to exercise is the creation of a new habit. Paul Matthews observed that “Research has shown it takes 66 days to form a new hbit, but what helps is if they are done ‘same time, same place’.” Since most of us are in the office every day, that constancy can help form new habits. Paul added, “As an example, I have a few habits formed myself – when I’m waiting for the bath water to fill I do dips all the time the water is running, or if I’m waiting for a kettle I do lunges.”

The return 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!

We thank Duncan MacDonald-Korth, Captain, University of Oregon Men’s Tennis Team, and Matt Fairbank, Harvard ’12, for their help researching this post, and our office residents for being guinea pigs in our experiment.

(Chair photo credit: watz )

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