9 ways to create a corporate fitness center experience that keeps employees coming back

A corporate fitness center has two advantages off the bat: convenience and cost. Employees can easily work out on their breaks and they don’t have to pay as much, if anything at all, to take a spin class after a stressful day. It would be easy to kick back and rely on those facts alone to make the facility a success.

However, the convenience of the facility and the low cost aren’t enough to warp it into a place where employees want to spend their time. “If you're an employee and the corporate fitness center doesn't have what you're looking for or you have a bad experience, you may never walk in that door again, and you may work there for the next 20 years,” says John Davison, account development director at EXOS.

Unlike commercial gyms, corporate fitness centers don’t have an endless pool of new community members to attract when one drops out. The solution: Get the experience just right. From the user flow to the culture to the equipment and programming, every detail counts when it comes to boosting employee retention and satisfaction.

1. Assess your employee demographic.

Every company is different, and so are its employees. “It's important that we understand what the members are looking for because sometimes you only have one shot with them,” says Davison. For example, you typically wouldn’t place intimidating equipment like a Queenax front and center (a modular, multifunctional piece of equipment used for functional and suspension training). It might deter beginners. However, Cassandra Blakewood, another EXOS account development director, was presented with the perfect opportunity to break that rule.

A tech company with a young demographic wanted a fitness center that was different from any other gym in its area. Knowing the company had the right mindset to take the risk, EXOS advised making a Queenax the centerpiece. To combat any intimidation, coaches led educational group workouts such as “15-minute abs on the Queenax,” which progressed into a workout-of-the-day board. It remains a strong central hub for the facility, and coaches incorporate at least one Queenax-based exercise into each class that takes place on the training floor.

It's important that we understand what the members are looking for because sometimes you only have one shot with them. 

The facility also provides EXOS Circuit and Wellbeats to cater to the company’s call center employees who work odd hours. “They can come in at different times and still get an instructor-led workout,” says Blakewood. All of the equipment and programming was chosen for this unique population. As a result, the facility’s NPS score is 64.1, surpassing the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association’s benchmark for health clubs of 44. (NPS scores represent how likely a consumer is to recommend the services to a friend or colleague on a scale of -100 to 100).

2. Focus on relationship building.

Want to build a solid employee fitness center experience? You’ve got to build relationships, too. If your staff greets employees and says thank you as they come and go, great. But that’s just one step in making sure the fitness center is a positive space. As Davison puts it: Every interaction could lead to somebody having a life-changing experience or never walking in those doors again.

“That’s why our team members are people-focused,” adds Blakewood. “They take the time to care about individuals and learn your name. You're not just a number. You're actually a person to us.” If you already have an on-site fitness center, test it out. When coaches walk outside the fitness center into the office space, what unfolds? People should know them by name and engage in conversation and friendly hellos. “That's the type of stuff I like to see because that means that we know our members and we know our population,” Davison says.

When coaches walk outside the fitness center into the office space, what unfolds? People should know them by name and engage in conversation and friendly hellos.

The fitness center layout should lend itself to strong communication. Coach offices should be visible and accessible. The front desk shouldn’t be too long. Blakewood advises making it more akin to small kiosks. A big desk may look grand, but it can also create a divide. The staff may feel inclined to hide behind it rather than go the extra mile to engage with employees.

3. Hire passionate staff members.

Certifications and degrees are a must. However, it takes more. “I also want to see a passion out of our team members,” says Davison. He recalls one client years ago that was facing declining membership. Once EXOS took over the facility, it was clear that poor leadership from the previous vendor had put a massive damper on the staff’s morale. That carries over to the experience employees have as well. “They’ll see that and go somewhere else,” he says.

After EXOS took over and worked to reignite a drive in the coaches that had been slowly deteriorating, the facility took a turn for the better. Membership increased within six months and has increased every year since. The takeaway: Coaches have to feel inspired to inspire others — inspired to come into work every day and inspired to continue improving their craft.

One of Davison’s go-to interview questions for hiring fitness coaches is: What was the last thing you did to develop yourself professionally? “I love to understand how our team members are continually striving for greater knowledge,” he says. Continued education is a good indicator that they’re passionate about their profession, and that attitude is contagious.

4. Make the gym a work-free zone.

The fitness center isn’t a glorified conference room. While most people will treat it as a place to decompress, some might try to carry on with work conversations. That’s no good. The fitness center should be a breaking point from to-do lists where employees can focus on self-care. They won’t exercise there if they aren’t able to get the space they need.

The company leadership team and fitness staff can set the precedent upfront. Blakewood says to use strategic language in your marketing: “This is a stress-free zone” and “Step away from your desk and clear your mind.” When coaches reiterate that during classes, orientations, or one-on-ones, it deters people from treating the fitness center as a place to hold business meetings. Aim to establish a common etiquette: “I don’t want to talk about work here, so I won’t talk to you about work here.”

Address this in an employee satisfaction survey after the facility opens. Keep it anonymous, and ask employees if they consider the fitness center a place they can get away. If a lot of employees complain that colleagues approach them on work issues, nip it in the bud. Consider a friendly newsletter reminder about the intention of the fitness center or post kitschy, fun signage that says, “No meetings beyond this point.”

5. Establish sports and recreation leagues.

When thinking of corporate wellness program ideas and the experience you want to create, recreational sports can be a great addition. Remember, you’re trying to engage the folks who may have never lifted weights or stepped foot on a treadmill just as much as the people who are already active. “Rec is a great way to pull people in that don't like to do traditional workouts but they love football or soccer or tennis or basketball, whatever it may be,” Blakewood says. You’re still able to provide an outlet for regular movement in their week, and friendly competition is a great way to build community.

EXOS has especially seen a lot of success with recreational sports at companies with large manufacturing populations. At one EXOS-operated site, an average of nearly 500 employees participated across six different sports leagues each year. High engagement is one of the strongest indicators that employees are having a good experience.

But this is something you have to plan for ahead of time. After all, sports require courts or fields — either building them or finding them. That’s why sitting down to determine what you want out of the entire corporate wellness program, not just within the four walls of the fitness center, is important early on.

6. Think outside the fitness center.

“Clients don't always realize the impact that we can have outside of the walls, whether it's rec and sports or movement breaks or education,” says Davison. Think stretch breaks in conference rooms and 20-minute fitness sessions in the courtyard.

You can’t sit around and wait for employees to discover how great the facility is. Go out and give ‘em a taste of the experience they’re missing. Plus, getting to know employees outside the fitness center helps chip away at any hesitation they might have about stepping foot in the facility. Their comfort levels will play directly into their overall experience.

“We'll do things like ‘ask the trainer’ tables to help get people more comfortable with our staff,” Blakewood says. If the cafe is handing out smoothie samples in the kitchen one day, the fitness staff can help, soaking up the opportunity to meet employees and get them excited about new classes or other facility offerings.

7. Ditch weight-based challenges.

Gone are the days of the biggest loser challenges. Rather than hammering employees with pressure to lose weight as the path to improving their health, challenges should be holistic and motivational. “It’s more about education and connecting people,” Blakewood says. At EXOS-operated facilities, challenges are themed around the four pillars of mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery.

For example, a 20 days of movement challenge can teach employees how to structure their own workouts, including cardio, strength, and recovery sessions. EXOS sites also offer mindset challenges filled with stress relief and relaxation techniques, after which employees report increased happiness and energy levels. When it comes to nutrition, try something like nutrition bingo. Get creative, have fun with your challenges, and employees will too.

8. Pay attention to minor design details.

Never underestimate cleanliness and organization. Engagement levels rest on how stellar (or not) the experience is from the moment an employee arrives until the moment they leave. Are towels located where people will instinctively grab them? Is the discard bin noticeable or are towels more likely to end up on the floor?

A sense of privacy in the appropriate places is important.

According to Davison, showerheads and sinks in locker rooms are also not to be overlooked. He paints a picture: A group fitness class gets out at 12:30 p.m. Everybody's rushing back to work, but there are only four showers. You can probably envision how that scenario plays out. If it’s not easy for employees to get in their workout, shower, and head back to work, they may avoid certain classes. Experience: minus 10 points.

Additionally, think about where locker rooms are placed — not only locker rooms but group exercise rooms. How will users flow from space to space? Blakewood recalls one facility where the door leading into the basketball court was right outside one of the glass-walled group fitness studios. It became a gathering area where people couldn’t help but watch classes going on as they waited for their teammates. “That sense of privacy in the appropriate places is important,” she says. In this case, the solution was to frost the glass.

9. Encourage vendor collaboration, not competition.

A corporate wellness or employee benefits program may have several different vendors between the cafe, the gym, and more. For example, at one company where EXOS operates the employee fitness center, they also offer a bike program. “You can check out bikes on your lunch break and ride around the nearby lake,” explains Blakewood. Even though EXOS doesn’t own the bikes or operate the program, it makes perfect sense to promote that offering within the fitness center.

Cafe collaborations are also a hit. “There are so many different ways the gym and the cafe can work together to benefit both programs,” Blakewood says. “I had another client site where we ran a wellness challenge that was a play on ‘The Hunger Games,’” she recalls. The cafe collaborated with the fitness facility every week to offer a tribute meal. After a workout, employees got additional points in the movement challenge if they ordered the meal at the cafe. “We saw an increase in sales from the healthy food station because our program encouraged people to go try the tribute meal," she says. 

Another company EXOS works with offers on-site childcare. EXOS collaborates with them to create an annual field day where parents and kids participate. “We've gotten people to come in and engage at the fitness center because they've seen our team out there,” says Blakewood. Parents are always happy to share that experience with their kids. You’re not only helping them stay active but providing opportunities for their kids to get in on the fun.

That’s what it’s all about. It’s not just a fitness center to lower health care costs. It’s a sense of community. It’s an experience. “Everything we do always has to be through the lens of, ‘Does this help us engage with our members in the best way?’” Davison says. If people aren't having fun and they aren't engaging, then why do it?

Need help at your corporate fitness center? EXOS can lend a hand.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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