Since shifting its employees to remote working at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Twitter Inc. adapted its fitness reimbursement benefit to the new virtual reality.

Before the change, fitness was already a core part of the social media company’s suite of wellness benefits and perks, as well as part of its culture. In its Toronto office, the organization had two treadmills from which employees could take calls, so it wasn’t unusual to see people using it during virtual meetings, says Cameron Gordon, Twitter’s head of communications in Canada. The company also offered free in-office yoga and pilates sessions.

Read: Employees prioritizing fitness benefits during pandemic: survey

In addition, employees received $100 a month in fitness reimbursements, which they could use toward the cost of gym memberships or other fitness services, says Andrea MacDonald, head of technology and telecommunications at Twitter in Canada.

In light of the move to remote working (and working out) for many employees since last March, the company now provides employees with a $1,200 lump-sum reimbursement. The benefit allows employees to choose the fitness vehicle they want to invest in — staff can use the money to purchase a treadmill, an exercise bike or any other equipment or service they need to ensure they can fit fitness in whenever and however it makes sense for them.

Twitter also introduced an online yoga class in the early days of the pandemic. And for employees who choose to purchase equipment, they can still get the benefit of socializing or working out with their colleagues through micro-groups on several free fitness applications, such as the company’s private Fitter Twitter group, says MacDonald, noting employees from all over the world can also organize virtual bike rides on Peloton’s online platform under the hashtag #Pelotweeps.

Benefits of a healthy workforce

Despite the coronavirus vaccination efforts underway, gyms and other fitness studios remain closed in many parts of the country. As a result, employees who don’t have the means, or the space, for their own home gyms may not be able to focus on their physical health they way they once did.

By the numbers

70% of employees said they consider fitness benefits second only to health-care benefits.

25% said they’ve been exercising more since the beginning of the pandemic.

20% of respondents who are working from home said they’re using their previous commute time to work out.

80% said scheduled fitness activities have helped them establish a new routine.

60% who had participated in a team workout through the workplace said they felt more connected to their colleagues afterwards.

ClassPass Inc. survey, November 2020

Read: Citigroup stretching into virtual fitness programming amid pandemic

Focusing on maintaining or improving physical fitness can be challenging during a period that’s mentally taxing, says Daniela Tixi, chief executive officer and senior executive client advisor at Strategic HR Asset.

Indeed, a November 2020 survey by the Association of Canadian Studies and Leger Marketing Inc. found 32 per cent of respondents said they’ve put on weight since the beginning of the pandemic.

Employers that invest in their employees’ health and well-being, whether through virtual or onsite programs, create a supportive culture where people want to come to work, says Linda Lewis-Daly, owner and managing director of Lewis-Daly and Associates.

“From a tangible perspective, unhealthy employees incur direct and indirect costs to the employer, such as absenteeism and presenteeism. If their performance declines or their cognitive function — due to stress and additional worries — declines, then their productivity and quality of work also declines, which can impact [companies’] products or customer satisfaction.”

Read: How workplace fitness can improve employee productivity

Employees also want their health and wellness programs to be personalized, which is why a fitness reimbursement works well, she says. “As employees’ life circumstances change, they need different things, so allowing them to make choices to personalize their wellness or fitness experiences is helpful.”

One silver lining to come from the pandemic is that companies are beginning to better understand the benefits of investing in employees’ holistic health, says Tixi, noting many employers are exploring ways to support their workforce’s physical and mental well-being.

However, she notes there are myriad questions for employers to consider in their decision to offer fitness benefits. Should they buy access to a platform for staff or create their own programs in-house? If employers choose the latter, will they hire someone to run these offerings or use a free service like YouTube? Companies must also take privacy and liability issues into consideration, as well as what time of day to offer these programs.

Still, enlightened employers are starting to move away from a return on investment ideology to focus on a mentality that emphasizes value on investment, says Lewis-Daly. They’re taking into consideration the entire employment experience and how wellness programs that include nutrition, fitness and mental health contribute to overall company culture, she adds.

Read: Alberta Blue Cross shares exercise videos, tips to support employee fitness

With Twitter’s fitness reimbursement, employees can bring the gym into their homes and continue to benefit from the social interaction many people have been missing throughout the coronavirus crisis. The benefit, which MacDonald says started out as a retention tool, is now a vital part of the company’s culture.

And with the organization allowing employees to work from home permanently after the pandemic, it’s also continuing to prioritize physical health and well-being, because “making fitness a part of the culture and bringing people together is something that we enjoy as a company.

“We are much more efficient working from home,” she adds. “There’s a lot of efficiencies to be gained.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.