Designing a workplace to keep millennials healthy and happy

“You’re only one yoga class away from a good mood,” says the lean but muscular yoga instructor, who encourages us to smile as she leads us through a flow of warrior poses. Natural light floods the room through wall-to-floor windows and a skylight that breaches the lofted ceiling. Acoustic folk songs stream  from the sound system. As the instructor guides us to stand in mountain pose with spines tall and eyes closed, she prompts us to “find that stillness within.”

Though this seems like an upscale yoga studio, it’s not. It’s just an ordinary day at the GoPro corporate offices in Carlsbad, Calif. The half-dozen yogis that surround me are employees practicing asanas before their lunch break. GoPro, like other corporations steeped in millennial culture, has taken the route paved by Silicon Valley icons such as Google and Facebook in eschewing the old work-like-a-dog-until-you-retire (or die) ethic for a more holistic, healthful work ambiance. Productivity is still highly valued in this new corporate model, yet proponents believe that greater productivity is achieved when employees are healthier and happier.“

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The work-life balance is a really important thing to the culture here,” says GoPro spokeswoman Katie Kilbride, who meets me in the courtyard after yoga practice. We walk by outdoor showers, surfboard racks and a gleaming row of beach cruisers. Kilbride gestures to a bonfire area and a horseshoe pit, adding: “As hard as we work, it’s really important to keep that balance, whether it’s through physical activity or fun.”

Research supports the idea that healthy, happy employees make better workers. A Gallup poll indicated that employees with high engagement and well-being (versus those with just high engagement) missed 70% fewer workdays over a year, were 27% more likely to report “excellent” performances in their jobs and were 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organization within 12 months.

Studies indicate that higher job satisfaction in employees correlates to higher customer service ratings, and that employee contentment foreshadows a company’s stronger financial performance. Happy employees may also make for more innovative employees. A study published by the Administrative Science Quarterly indicates that positive mood is correlated with heightened creativity and that the effects of a positive mood can result in an “incubation period” of increased creativity that lasts up to two days.

But what specific factors make for workplace happiness?

The Energy Project, a N.Y.-based consulting firm that works with organizations to improve employee wellness, collaborated with the Harvard Business Review on a survey of nearly 20,000 employees across various industries to determine factors that influence workplace quality of life. They found that employees were more satisfied and productive when four core needs were met: physical (exercise, nutrition, sleep and intermittent rest), emotional (positive mood), mental (ability to focus) and spiritual (meaningful work).

GoPro has fully embraced this concept, and it is in good company in Carlsbad — a town that has tried to frame itself as “the Silicon Valley of Southern California” —  where the corporate model of healthy living is becoming the norm. The value of employee well-being within many businesses in Carlsbad is partially an outgrowth of the industries that thrive there: information and communications technology, active sports and a flurry of start-ups — sectors that tend to exist within an active, techie, millennial culture.

But the city’s geography and landscape also lend themselves to opportunities for a healthy, active lifestyle, from the mild SoCal weather and proximity to the ocean to miles of trails for running, hiking and biking. (Carlsbad has preserved twice the amount of undeveloped, open space than exists in all the neighboring cities averaged together.)

In choosing where to locate 5D Robotics, a robotics and software company, Chief Executive David Bruemmer chose Carlsbad because of its biking possibilities. “Almost everybody bikes to work every day,” says Bruemmer, who frequently starts his workday with a 22-mile ride. “All of my time on the bike is incredibly valuable from an innovation perspective.”

At ViaSat, an Internet tech company that in June was voted one of the healthiest companies by the San Diego Business Journal, employees are encouraged to take time off during the work day to go to the gym (there are two on the Carlsbad campus) or head outdoors for a game of pickup basketball or beach volleyball.

“The fact that there is rocket science going on alongside people playing beach volleyball makes for a really interesting culture,” says ViaSat spokeswoman Chris Fallon.

Exercising with co-workers not only improves physical fitness but also contributes to camaraderie — a vital aspect of workplace happiness. Some corporations encourage camaraderie by hosting social activities, such as ViaSat’s book club, where employees meet at the campus cafe to discuss industry-related books.

Other companies, such as Verdani Partners, a green building firm in Carlsbad, encourage their employees to bond over healthful meals. Daniele Horton, Verdani’s founder, recently hired a cook to prepare organic, family-style lunches for her employees.

“People used to eat at their desks, but now people eat together,” Horton says, opening the office refrigerator to reveal an abundance of carrots, leafy greens and bottled juices. “It’s been great; we stop work, we interact and we bond as a team.”

The Energy Project found that the most important component of workplace well-being was related to the core need of spirituality, or finding a higher purpose — and this is something GoPro takes to heart. In 2014, the company implemented its “Live It, Eat It, Love It” program, where employees are required to take two-hour recesses every Thursday afternoon to pursue things  they love — and they are encouraged to document activities with their GoPros. Jeff Ryan, GoPro spokesman, says employees have used this time to pursue a wide variety of interests, from surf sessions and guitar jams to building robots, volunteering at beach clean-ups, culinary creations or visiting their daughter’s kindergarten classes.

Although GoPro announced earlier this week that it was cutting more than 200 full-time positions as part of a company-wide restructuring, Ryan says the weekly recess program continues to pay off for the firm.

“We believe the more people are pursuing their passions, the more opportunity they have to live a big life, the more psyched they’ll be to be here,” he says. “It’s how the company was founded originally. It’s a cultural component of who we are.”

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