A finance company walks its way to profitsby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
In the cartoon The Jetsons, George Jetson's office of the future is full of LCD screens, robots and floating chairs. A Minneapolis-based company has another vision of the office of the future -- treadmill desks. The concept is based on research conducted at the Mayo Clinic.
Minneapolis, Minn. — SALO is an unusual financial staffing company in Minneapolis. In the middle of SALO's office floor is a gong. It's sounded whenever someone snags a new client.
A few workers interrupt their game of Wii tennis to clap. Others cheer from their pods of desks. And along one wall of the office stands a row of treadmill desks. Two employees in suits and tennis shoes are on them. They're walking and clapping.
They also walk and type, walk and phone conference. According to SALO and the Mayo Clinic, this is the "office of the future."
SALO co-founder John Folkestad steps onto one in his wingtips. Next to him, a consultant is walking and talking on another unit.
The treadmill desk is a scaled down version of its fitness center cousin. In this incarnation the treadmill is a simple, slim platform with a desk and LCD screen on top. It makes hardly any noise.
Folkestad demonstrates how it works.
"So this is the max speed, not everyone goes 2 [mph]. I've got a longer gait, so I go two miles an hour. So we usually end up talking," Folkestad said. "Especially when you've been on them for 15 minutes, 20, 30 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half."
He says the pace is too slow to work up a sweat.
These desks were a solution to a weight problem Folkestad and his partner fought for decades.
"You'd come in the morning and you'd sit at a desk like this. You'd be sitting until you go meet with clients or do interviews," said Folkestad. "You go meet clients for lunch, wherever, sitting. You return here. You sit. You basically go through your day [sitting], and then go home shot because you're tired and you've been working all day long."
Then his partner ran across a Mayo Clinic study on treadmill desks. The company bought 12 of them. Each cost $4,000.
That purchase came along with a team of Mayo Clinic researchers who monitored the health of 18 walking employees for six months. On average, people lost nine pounds.
"I lost 20 pounds net weight. I lost 25, 26 pounds of fat," said Larry Revier.
Revier walked an hour to two hours every day. That's a little more than average. He suspected walking like a snail would be the equivalent of standing still.
"I always thought that you really had to work out hard. If you're going to work out on a treadmill you had to workout at 5 mph or go running at 7 mph," Revier said.
SALO's workers not only lost weight, they also decreased their cholesterol and blood pressure rates.
But the desks weren't a seamless addition to the office. SALO employees work collaboratively, and treadmill desks don't collaborate well. They tend to isolate people.
Ken Heisler said the desks cut into work.
"Ninety-percent of the time my group is all sitting right here, and we're all working very closely together, and I'm used to having Larry or my team right here," said Heisler. "I'm looking --- where are they? I've got a question for them. I have to get up and walk back and ask the question because I need an answer now. It wasn't a huge deal. But nonetheless, I did notice it."
SALO has designed a conference room of treadmill desks for workers to meet and walk. Four treadmills with Formica tops face each other.
Co-founder John Folkestad and I try them out. I extend my arm to record him while we walk.
Earlier he assured me no one in his office tripped while working. But in the midst of our conversation, I stumbled three times.
"I don't think it was designed to have to do that," Folkestad laughed.
Tripping aside, Folkestad says when his company moves again it will purchase redesigned treadmill desks for every employee who wants one.
"If you combine the potential opportunity to help the health of the employee and save on health care, combined with productivity gains ... do you want to pay for a treadmill desk or do you want to pay by not having a treadmill desk," Folkestad said.
Salo's revenue rose 10 percent during the first three months of the study, just as weights dropped.
Still, Folkestad has heard the jokes about how employees look like hamsters on a wheel.
There's another similarity: When George Jetson walks his dog on the levitating treadmill, he trips.
- All Things Considered, 08/28/2008, 2:24 p.m.