When Your Gym Is Your Office

Equinox, Life Time Fitness and other health clubs are carving out larger workspaces for their members

By Rachel Bachman

Brooklyn Boulders has four U.S. locations, including this one in Somerville, Mass. The company provides workspaces for members near climbing areas. Photo: Caitie McCabe/Brooklyn Boulders

Chantelle Hartshorne’s ideal office space is a lounge area at the Equinox gym in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

Ms. Hartshorne, who works for a company called StyleBee that dispatches hair and makeup services via smartphone app, can hop on an elliptical machine for a quick workout. She can step off to take a phone call. Spending more time at the gym also has helped her make connections for her makeup business.

“I’ve gotten some high-profile weddings out of the deal,” Ms. Hartshorne says. “At the end of the day, it’s very strategic to place yourself where your users are.”

      Illustration: Jason Raish for The Wall Street journal

More health-club members are doing work where they work out.

Sensing a surge of demand, gyms are responding by building or expanding workspaces for members to set up laptops, charge phones and conduct business—sometimes for the entire day.

The idea is to keep gym-goers lingering longer and accommodate the rising number of people who work remotely.

The lounge/workspace at Equinox’s SoMa location is about 1,150 square feet. If it continues to gain popularity, Equinox will expand it to as large as 6,000 square feet, says Aaron Richter, Equinox’s vice president of design.

At the Equinox in London’s Kensington neighborhood, “I’ve seen people do full-on job interviews in the lounge,” he says.

Equinox, which has 81 locations in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, is creating or enlarging lounge/work areas at several other clubs. It’s also building the spaces into almost all new clubs.

Chantelle Hartshorne, who works for an app that provides on-demand hair and makeup services, often does work at Equinox gyms, including this one in San Francisco’s Marina District. Photo: Steven Gregory

Health-club operators say providing workspaces gives members another reason to keep paying dues.

It also increases members’ spending on discretionary items like smoothies, yoga pants and massages.

About 2.8% of U.S. employees consider home their primary place of work, according to 2014 census data. But 20% to 30% of employees work outside the office at least once a month, and that share is rising, says Kate Lister, president of San Diego-based Global Workplace Analytics.

In the 1980s, some high-end health clubs built conference rooms for members, but they never caught on, says Steve Datte, a health-club industry veteran and a regional manager of national health-club chain Wellbridge. More recently, employers have become more open to letting people work remotely, and technology has made it easier.

Brittany Frain, a 31-year-old account manager for a job-search company, spends as many as 25 hours a week working in a lounge area of the Colorado Athletic Club in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood. She usually sits at a table near the gym’s weightlifting area.

The workspace has strong Wi-Fi, plenty of outlets and USB ports. There’s free coffee from a local company in the mornings. For quitting time, the club’s cafe sells eight craft beers.

Sometimes when Ms. Frain is there videoconferencing, the caller will ask, “ ‘What’s going on in the background?’ and they’ll see someone lifting,” Ms. Frain says. “It’s actually kind of a nice little icebreaker. They kind of get a kick out of seeing someone deadlifting behind me when I’m talking to them.”

She says she likes the ambient noise and energy of working at the gym, as opposed to at a coffee shop where she feels she’s disturbing people when she makes phone calls.

Since starting her work routine a few months ago, she’s gone from taking group-fitness classes about three days a week to five days.

“Getting to the gym is 90% of the battle,” Ms. Frain says.

Tom Horne, the club’s general manager, says the lounge and cafe areas are part of the club’s strategy to lure people away from specialty fitness studios. “I almost start all my tours in the cafe, because it gets people’s minds thinking, ‘This place is different,’” Mr. Horne says.

Life Time Fitness, a 121-club chain based in Chanhassen, Minn., has a location in downtown Minneapolis with two conference rooms for members. Its gym in Tampa, Fla., has a business center.

In other locations, such as the recently opened one on New York City’s West Side, Life Time is installing or adding high-top tables to accommodate people who want to do work.

Life Time’s 300,000-square-foot location in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park has seen a recent surge in members using its cafe and a nearby seating area for work, says Kerry Sutherland, the club’s senior general manager.

The recently opened Colorado Athletic Club in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood features a lounge and workspace that Brittany Frain uses almost daily. Ms. Frain says working at the gym spurs her to take fitness classes more often. Photo: Brittany Frain    

Coffee shops and health clubs have long aspired to be the “third place” people go after home and work. “Now, people are taking that third place and turning it into their second place,” he says.

Joe Lemay, already a member of a rock-climbing and fitness facility called Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, Mass., began spending his days at a dedicated workspace inside the gym. Dressed in athletic gear, he would tap out computer code at a stand-up desk, then take a break and scramble up the climbing wall.

After one climbing session in December 2014, a product idea came to him in a eureka moment: a reusable pen-and-paper notebook that’s digitally interactive. His new company, called Rocketbook, shipped its first notebooks late in 2015.

“Having that separation between work and play just doesn’t make as much sense in today’s creative economy,” Mr. Lemay says.

Mr. Lemay’s company now has eight employees and operates out of a conventional co-working space while he looks for a permanent office. He says he misses working at the climbing gym, where he didn’t feel odd doing a quick leg stretch at his desk.

He noted that traditional co-working companies can charge $500 a month for an office space and a few other amenities, while Brooklyn Boulders gave him workspace and gym facilities for about $100.

“You just couldn’t beat the value,” he says.

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