When Your Boss Makes You Exercise

Photo credit: Victor, CC BY 2.0.

A Billfolder requested we take a look at this Harvard Business Review article about Henrik Bunge, a Swedish CEO who represents the new ethos of “fitness leadership:”

Last fall, we joined Bunge and his employees for “sports hour,” a mandatory fitness class for all employees every Friday between 11 and noon. In pairs, we were throwing kicks and punches at each other, with the kickboxing instructor yelling, “C’mon, harder!” from the podium.

The “work hard, exercise harder” company culture isn’t exclusive to Sweden; earlier this month a bunch of Twitter users called out a healthcare company for advising prospective employees that the job would require daily exercise (specifically, that conferences were held on treadmill desks and meetings ended with group wall sits). The company apologized and changed its job ad, although it still suggests that employees will exercise both during and after work.

But back to Bunge. The idea behind fitness leadership is that fitness is based on continuous growth: the more reps you do, the stronger you get. Once employees make the work = growth connection, they’ll be able to use similar systems and metrics to improve their productivity.

After class, Bunge explained his sports-meets-work philosophy when we met for lunch at an elegant Thai restaurant. “Take a football player. He will always know how he performs. But if you go to the marketing department and ask them, they’re usually clueless.”

First of all: what? Marketing departments meticulously track how well their campaigns perform. They’re running A/B tests, generating and tracking leads, sharing personality apps to Facebook in order to suck up user data, etc.

Second of all: when you track your fitness, you’re generally working towards a specific goal that has a defined end point. First you do Couch to 5K, and then you work on running a 5K in under 30 minutes — but at some point you won’t be able to run your 5K any faster than you’re doing it (you’re unlikely to get under 15 minutes, for example) and, not to borrow from Haruki Murakami, but you’ll spend the rest of your life working to maintain that level of fitness as your body ages. Same with any other fitness goal, whether it’s lifting weights or reducing body fat. There’s a point at which improvement stalls — and if you continue to push beyond that point, you run the risk of injury/death.

But companies don’t think that way. They see maintenance as a bad thing. Productivity and sales and profits have to INCREASE EVERY QUARTER or someone’s getting fired.

If companies did in fact treat productivity the way people treat fitness, they’d have to acknowledge that serious fitness requires serious rest periods, for starters. (35-hour work weeks, anyone?) They’d have to be prepared for the growth curve to flatten out, and to know when and how to switch to maintenance. They’d also have to figure out a way to keep employees engaged, which our Swedish hero has not yet mastered:

A number of employees have also made comments about staff turnover: according to figures provided by the company, the employee exit rate as a whole increased from 8% to 25% between 2014 and 2016. Management has admitted that turnover during Bunge’s first couple of years was high, but viewed it as a plus, since it enabled them to handpick new staff.

Only fit people are a good fit, apparently.


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