Drawing employees into an underutilized corporate fitness center

An empty corporate fitness center will make any company leader feel like they’re wasting their money. While there’s no single answer to why fitness center use may be declining, there are a few things you can check off your list to start troubleshooting.

If your corporate wellness program is missing the mark, that could mean less engagement overall, including utilization of your fitness center. Or it might be time to rethink your facility design if your gym feels too cluttered, or your locker rooms aren’t inviting spaces where your employees can feel safe.

If none of those issues seem to fit, it could simply be a situational challenge your company needs to adapt to. For example, many companies struggle with adjusting to modern workforce changes. Kristin Roelle, EXOS program manager at a Fortune 500 company in Riverwoods, Illinois, says, “Right now we’re battling a change in culture with a higher work-from-home population, which has impacted the utilization of our centers.”

It also could be something as simple as normal company variations like Linda Wolfenbarger, EXOS program manager at one of our financial clients in Jacksonville, Florida, has seen at her site. “We’re a corporate site so we experience fluctuations in utilization due to increased workload, workforce reductions, and deadlines for carryover vacation, to name a few reasons.”

No matter the hurdle, it’s important to keep up engagement. Amanda Doughty, EXOS program manager at Bayer in Whippany, New Jersey, says, “Our fitness center membership is free to the employees, so the challenge isn’t getting people to sign up, it's keeping them active. As an EXOS team, we have to be creative to keep members using the facility. We have found that small group training and developing fun fitness programs keeps members motivated and coming back for more.”

Ready to turn your ghost town back into a thriving corporate fitness center community? These six steps should help.

1. Keep it personal.

Your corporate fitness center is a great perk for recruiting. But while many employees have the best intentions about being active, the reality is that free membership at your corporate fitness center may make employees complacent when it comes to regularly showing up.

That’s why it’s important to have staff members build a personal relationship with employees and reach out when they haven’t seen them at the center in a while. At Roelle’s site, personalized emails or a face-to-face meeting with members who already had an established relationship with a current team member resulted in a 79% response rate within one week, and 47% checked in to the facility that same week.

You can also incentivize employees by putting holds on their memberships. At Doughty’s site, they deactivate badge access to the center after 60 days of inactivity. Members only need to stop by the center to reactivate, but it’s enough of a reminder to work. “Sometimes people’s lives get busy and they don’t even realize that they’re not working out, so a gentle email reminder can help get some people back through the door."

With active and inactive members alike, try to reinforce connections with thank-you cards, personal phone calls, and face-to-face check-ins. And if you have a diverse population, it’s worth brushing up on the best way to speak to different generations to make sure you’re communicating in the most effective way.

2. Integrate your services and vendors.

Have other wellness or benefit services at your site? Connecting them with your corporate fitness center will help your employees reap the full benefits of your programs and provide some opportunities for cross promotion.

At Doughty’s site, they often partner with the medical suite to promote programs at a table in the on-site cafe and advertise for each other’s events. This helps them reach their mutual goal of promoting health in the company between departments and work toward addressing employees’ top three health concerns that year.

Working with other parts of your business is also a good chance for staff members to engage with employees outside the center. Outreach activities could include stretch breaks for different departments at their location, tabling events alongside other wellness vendors, and education appointments and posture assessments at individual workstations.

If your employees are too busy for a full workout, implement quick workout options to help them fit movement into their day.

3. Bank on positive peer pressure.

Nothing gets people involved like working on a team. And team wellness challenges can motivate more people to come into your corporate fitness center. “Participation in our team-based programs is nearly double our individual programs,” says Doughty. “These programs seem to really get people motivated and there’s a lot of fun competition between teams for bragging rights. We usually get some new members out of it because some non-members get roped into joining a team.”

It’s also a good chance to build camaraderie within the company, like hosting team-building activities in the fitness center at Roelle’s site. “This outside-of-the-box concept has helped break barriers, especially for those who wouldn't otherwise enter the fitness center,” she says.

For the employees at Wolfenbarger’s site, team challenges are something employees look forward to. “One of our most popular programs is our blue versus green challenge. Participants join either the blue or the green team and achieve points for daily movement and daily challenges over the course of four weeks,” she says. “The competition gets our participants excited and talking with each other about the challenges, and we have an increase in participation every year.” This year’s challenge had 230 participants, and over half achieved 150 minutes of activity each week.

4. Tailor solutions to your population.

Besides just choosing effective programs and running wellness events, the other key to success is tailoring programs to your specific population. What works at one site might not work for another, and even individual employees have different needs.

When Doughty’s team brainstorms programs for the year, they’re careful to consider member feedback and needs. “We try to vary programming throughout the year because certain programs don’t always apply to certain people,” she says. “We had a successful biggest winner program earlier this year, but not everyone is coming to the fitness center to lose weight so a weight-loss program every time isn’t necessarily the answer.”

If your employees are too busy for a full workout, implement quick workout options to help them fit movement into their day. Options such as walking, foam rolling, and stretching for seven to 10 minutes were successful at Wolfenbarger’s site. Or offer circuit-style classes where members who are short on time can get a total-body workout by going through the workout once, while others with more time can complete the circuit two to three times.

And be sure to engage your remote workers. “With the work-from-home initiative at the forefront of our challenges currently, we’ve developed programs and activities that are accessible to off-site employees,” says Roelle. “We now provide short movement videos that employees can view on the company’s internal portal and we’ve expanded one of our walking programs to include anyone working remotely.”

5. Celebrate success stories.

For employees, nothing brings the purpose of the fitness center alive more than the success of their peers. And hearing how the fitness center and its staff helped your co-worker meet their health goals can be great motivation to remember to bring your gym bag tomorrow.

Wolfenbarger runs a program at her site called “pictures of health” to highlight a member's ongoing focus on healthy living. “I remember when one of our inactive members saw a picture of health and came by to talk to me about how inspired she was by that particular story,” she says. “I gave this inactive member some assistance and resources to restart and several years later she is doing Ironman triathlons.” This initiative helps highlight the site’s programs and services while reminding the employee population that it’s possible to improve health while handling work and family responsibilities.

Wolfenbarger’s team also benefits from a strong referral program with fitness ambassadors who consistently invite their colleagues to try out the fitness center. Recently, a long-time employee finally joined the fitness center after five years of being invited by one of the fitness ambassadors. This new member is now a believer, and he’s telling other colleagues about how much better he’s feeling.

If you’re expecting your employees to come in every day and log an hour on the treadmill, you probably have the wrong expectations for your corporate fitness center.

6. Broaden your definition of fitness.

If you’re expecting your employees to come in every day and log an hour on the treadmill, you probably have the wrong expectations for your corporate fitness center. It’s important to make movement sessions fun as well as effective.

Some of the classes at Wolfenbarger’s site finish with a fitness game or sometimes the entire class will be centered around a fitness game. Employees can also play indoor pickleball in the group movement room, which always comes with lots of laughter, cheering, and yelling.

In addition to group walks around campus, Doughty’s team caters to those who aren’t up for a typical gym workout with team sports like basketball, cricket, ping-pong, volleyball, badminton, indoor soccer, or low-key games like bocce or corn hole tournaments.

“For some people, doing a workout is super boring, so if there’s a sport they can engage in, they’d much rather work out that way,” says Doughty. “Most of the guys who come in to play basketball don’t use the fitness center for anything else. That’s what they enjoy.”

A benefit that’s worth the effort

In the end, the benefits of a vibrant corporate fitness center can’t be overstated. “Our regular members who work in management are supportive of their employees working out in the fitness center because they know how much it helps with health and productivity,” Wolfenbarger says. “They know our fitness team's support and encouragement helps employees to reach their goals in ways they can’t at the gym down the street.”

And it’s a perk you know employees will care about, which is good for recruiting and retention. “Employees regularly report to us that the fitness center is their most appreciated benefit of working at the company. They credit EXOS with helping alleviate stress and improving their quality of life,” says Roelle.

Ready to boost engagement at your fitness center? Check out our corporate fitness center management services.

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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