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Going Virtual Gives Weight Loss and Fitness Programs Broader Reach

Post-pandemic, employees value the flexibility of online wellness offerings

A woman is stretching on a yoga mat while using a laptop.

When pharmaceutical company Amgen began offering virtual classes and resources to help its approximately 25,000 employees lose weight and increase their fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic, it discovered it was able to extend the reach of these benefits. While onsite fitness programs had been offered to U.S. employees, going virtual made these programs available to the company's non-U.S. employees for the first time.

"We recognized that staff was not getting daily movement [working from home], so we began offering virtual five-minute fitness challenges and stretch breaks," said Amanda McComb, Amgen's senior associate of employee experience in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Amgen's fitness-for-kids program also had a broader reach because it was no longer limited to employees' children attending its onsite child care center.

"We also added virtual programs for children, like kid yoga classes, to improve motor skills and balance and stretching" so they could get some movement at home during remote learning, she said.

During the summer of 2021, Amgen plans to roll out an enhanced virtual summer fitness program for employees' children.

As a result of reaching a much larger population, Amgen's virtual weight loss and fitness programs saw a significant uptick in usage compared to the pre-pandemic, in-person classes it had sponsored.

Keeping Up the Momentum

Getting people to use weight loss and fitness programs is relatively easy when they are confined to their homes for long periods of time. The challenge as the pandemic recedes is to maintain interest and participation while also accommodating the changing needs of employees and their children who may be returning to in-person work and school.

To do so, employers can emphasize the private nature of these classes. "Virtual tech-based solutions are available to the entire employee population, not just those comfortable going to the gym and exercising in front of other people," said Jason Von Bank, president and CEO of Wellbeats, a virtual fitness company in St. Louis Park, Minn. "Onsite and virtual classes complement each other when companies reopen."

With the majority of its employees continuing with remote- or hybrid-work arrangements, Amgen plans to continue its virtual programs—developed by Wellbeats—even as it reopens its onsite fitness center. The company wants to ensure people have access to virtual wellness no matter where they are working. "Virtual programs are here to stay," McComb said. "The goal is to provide more options for staff to participate in wellness programs."

Keeping it easy to attend classes is paramount. Amgen provides a monthly lineup of all available classes, and its wellness platform allows employees to sign up for virtual classes online, with the event automatically added to the employee's calendar. The company also awards points to employees for their participation in wellness programs, and then offers a discount on health coverage to employees who earn a certain number of points.

[Want to learn more about wellness programs? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Homegrown Solutions

With 25,000 employees working at 198 sites, Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Va., needed a new approach to its wellness program as it transitioned to remote teaching and learning during the pandemic.

"We had to do a quick pivot because people really needed wellness support," said Camille Bartus, employee wellness manager. "Employees were isolated and stressed, so we looked for ways to offer them more."

The result was a homegrown solution, starting with virtual fitness classes that had been posted online by a local hospital. From there, Bartus was able to add other virtual programs covering topics such as mindfulness and nutrition, supplemented by webinars offered by the district's health care vendors.

"This allows employees to choose a program based on how much time they have—five, 10, or 20 minutes—and when they have it: after work, during lunch, when the kids are around," Bartus said. By making sessions available at any time, employees can encourage their families to join in the activities, she noted.

The depth of the content is also important. With about 800 options available, school district employees can take classes to enhance nutrition, cook healthy meals and increase their fitness.

"This provides enough flexibility so that employees can pick what they need when they need it," instead of having to exercise at a specific time of the day, Bartus said.

Measuring Success

By monitoring specific metrics, employers can see how effective their virtual programs are. For example, Bartus looks at how many employees register for a given class, and then how many follow through and take that class. The most popular classes can then become the building blocks of a program that is relevant and motivating to employees.

She also looks at the most popular times for taking classes to ensure adequate choices during those time slots.

Similarly, Amgen's McComb said the company will continue to track usage of its wellness programs, altering the schedule of popular classes to meet demand and replacing programs that are not garnering much interest.

McComb also conducts a quarterly analysis of the program to see utilization trends. If interest and usage are waning, she can tailor an e-mail blast to promote the program to employees.

Any virtual wellness offering will initially attract the most motivated employees. To capture people who are less motivated, employers can try different messaging through various communication channels. Asking employees who have benefited from the classes to serve as champions who communicate with their peers about the program can also generate interest.

Employers may have to rely on supervisors and team meetings to get the message out to employees who do not use computers or the Internet in their work. Messaging and scheduling may also need to change to accommodate employees in different locations or based on their work schedules.

Variety also is important, and the virtual nature of these programs is an asset in this effort. For example, "it's easy to add new classes to see if there is interest," Bartus said.

Neither Amgen nor Fairfax County Public Schools plans to roll back their virtual programs once employees have completely transitioned back to the workplace. Recognizing the greater reach and cost-effectiveness of this approach, "we should have been virtual all along," McComb said.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

[Related SHRM article: Post-Pandemic, Should Employers Still Subsidize Fitness at Home?]


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