By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Mark Williams really impressed his bosses at Aquascape, a St. Charles, Ill., maker of garden ponds and fountains. At the company’s gym, the 44-year-old warehouse manager showed CEO Greg Wittstock and other co-workers he could bench press 405 pounds.
“He is Samson,” Mr. Wittstock says. “He’s a he-man.”
Mr. Williams says his occasional workouts with the boss in the company gym build rapport. Working out together “ties a lot of people together in the company,” he says.
It’s hard to beat the company gym for the convenience of having workout space close to the workplace. Membership fees are usually discounted, and some companies arrange breaks on health-care premiums to employees who exercise. But there’s another advantage: the chance to polish office relationships.
“The gym has become the 21st-century version of the three-martini lunch of the 1960s or the company cafeteria of the 1990s,” says Rich Gee, a Stamford, Conn., executive coach. “It is the catalyst for bumping into people.”
The gym is one of the few employee benefits that hasn’t been trimmed in recent years. About one in five employers provides an on-site fitness center, about the same as five years ago, based on an annual survey of 534 employers by the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va., a professional group.
The rules of engagement are different from other gyms. No tiny Spandex workout wear or ripped T-shirts. No risque aerobics routines. And everyone remembers to wipe down the exercise bike before letting the CEO take a spin.
Trying to show off doesn’t help, and focusing too much on work can lead to dropped weights and embarrassing treadmill slips. Good boundaries are a must, especially in the locker room, career coaches say.
DeLeslyn Mitchell, a frequent user of the gym at her employer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Chattanooga, makes sure she is “very toweled up” in the locker room. “There’s nothing like going into a meeting and knowing that you just came out of the shower with somebody” there, says Ms. Mitchell, a coordinator of major accounts for the company.
At ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky’s Boulder, Colo., office, “no one really wants to see their boss naked,” says Chief Executive Andrew Keller. (Mr. Keller dresses inside a closed shower stall.)
The agency’s chief creative officer, Jeff Benjamin, used to return to his desk “a sweaty mess” immediately after working out, to cool down for a few minutes while checking email, he says. Co-workers “would kid me. They’d say, ‘Wow, look at those calves!’ ” The teasing and some complaints led Mr. Benjamin recently to start going straight to the showers.
Almost daily, Mr. Keller lifts weights or puts in some treadmill time. While he sees many of his employees, they know to avoid shop talk.
“There’s a lot of grunting going on,” he says. “It’s difficult to talk in between all the grunting.”
Still, he stresses the importance of fitness. He sent out an email late last year encouraging employees to stay in top physical shape so they could do their best work, he says. Patrick Feehery, an art director, recently stopped Mr. Keller in the company gym to say he had lost 30 pounds since the email went out.
Letting loose in a game of wallyball, a game akin to volleyball played with a net on a racquetball court, helps build teamwork at Aquascape, the garden-supply company. Playing on two- to four-person teams in the company gym, “I’ll get the elbows in the face and the smack talk, and it’s all in good fun,” says Dave Kelly, vice president of product development.
When co-workers exercise together, “it’s almost like drinking alcohol,” says Jennifer Zuri, a marketing communications manager at Aquascape and a former fitness trainer. “It lowers their inhibitions and makes them more likely to talk to people they normally wouldn’t.”
At Parago, a Lewisville, Texas, marketing-services company, doing Zumba or hip-hop dance classes at the company gym builds relationships across departments, says Maria Kamath. A database administration manager, Ms. Kamath says she doesn’t mind when co-workers approach her for help solving tech problems. “You’re there in your gym clothes, and you’re sweating. You don’t feel like you’re being hounded,” she says.
Even though she wanted to work out, JoAnne Ragan avoided her company gym at InfoCision Management, an Akron, Ohio, call-center company, for a year. Because she was overweight, “I was kind of embarrassed,” she says. And if she failed to get in shape, she didn’t want co-workers to know, she says. Then a company wellness trainer lured her in for personal-training sessions.
“I was the most out-of-shape, overweight person there,” Ms. Ragan says. She stuck to a workout regimen, dropped more than 100 pounds and is a size 8.
Now an account executive, Ms. Ragan takes full advantage of her co-worker contacts at the gym. Worried about whether her department would get enough tech support after a planned staff change, she spotted Mike Herston, a vice president in information technology, during a group circuit-training class. As he did exercises on the floor, Ms. Ragan swung a 10-pound kettle bell over his head.
“Hey Mike,” she said, “you’re going to make sure our department is taken care of with all these changes—right?”
Looking up at her, Mr. Herston replied, “I love the fact that you ask me now, when I’m on the ground and you have a weight in your hand,” he says. He adds, “She had quite a bit of leverage over me.”
Ms. Ragan got the support she needed.