It’s not uncommon for technology companies to offer an on-site workout area or subsidize gym membership costs for employees, particularly as fitness becomes more of a priority for today’s workers.
But Valve is taking the idea of improving employee health and wellness to another level.
For the past two years, the gaming company has hosted former University of Washington track star and U.S. Olympian Ja’Warren Hooker inside its Bellevue headquarters to help employees take a break from the computer, spend time getting in shape, and ultimately improve their performance at work.
Hooker, who runs a personal fitness and coaching company, makes his team of trainers available at Valve each day where they set up shop in a dedicated workout space and do everything from yoga to pilates to meditation.
“A happy and healthy employee is always a better thing to have,” Hooker said. “We’ve just seen a lot of transformation, physically and mentally, at Valve.”
Valve CEO Gabe Newell told GeekWire that he first connected with Hooker through Dr. Jim Vincent, an Internal Medicine and Pulmonary Disease specialist at Swedish Medical Center.
“Like many companies in the tech industry, Valve employees work long hours, have a lot of stress, and need to manage the demands of both their personal and professional lives,” Newell wrote in an email. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the quality of life for both our employees and their families.”
Newell said he liked how Hooker combined an “unusual mix of personal athletics, program and personnel management, and a broad interest in wellness.” He noted that the fitness program is now the second-most popular benefit Valve provides for employees, just behind an all-expense paid trip each year to Hawaii and other perks like an on-site barber, laundry service, massages, and weekly lunches.
“Both the demand for and utilization of the service is very high,” Newell said. “The consistent training presence, convenience of on-site facilities, as well as the inventiveness of Ja’Warren and his crew in coming up with fun ways to keep us all working out have all contributed to the ongoing success of the program.”
Hooker, a member of the U.S. men’s track team at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, began his career as a personal trainer 12 years ago by driving around Seattle to different clients and conducting in-home training sessions.
“It was an anomaly back then to go into someone’s house, but people didn’t have two hours to go to a gym and get that stuff in,” he said. “At the end of the day, their time was money.”
Hooker built a successful business with the personal training classes, but he always wanted to do something with companies. He and his team dabbled with one-off events and bootcamps for employees, but never really launched something serious until Valve called.
The idea of helping a tech company with an in-house training program excited Hooker, though he knew it would be a challenge.
“We wanted to figure out how people in the tech industry thought, and how to deliver a product to them that was well received,” he explained. “We understood that this was a completely different environment. These guys are the smartest people in their field — we wanted to give them an awesome workout, but also have fun and put their brain power to use.”
Hooker’s team incorporates mental challenges into physical workouts. For example, employees will complete a maze or a Where’s Waldo challenge while they are doing push-ups or boxing.
This strategy, Hooker explained, helps the employees exercise not only their bodies, but their minds. He’s noticed that tech industry employees typically increase their mental concentration when they are pushed physically, much like athletes do on the field or court.
“It’s crazy — as they get more fatigued, they concentrate just as athletes do,” he said. “As you stimulate the brain, it becomes more powerful. The folks at Valve make awesome products and we want to help them out from a concentration standpoint just like we do from a physical standpoint.”
Hooker, whose team utilizes low-cost equipment like bands, balls, and mats, added that having workouts directly inside the company is a huge convenience factor for employees.
“With a lot of Valve employees, we’re seeing a mind-shift of being afraid to workout because it’s a chore versus something you just do,” he said. “Whether it’s getting people away from their desks for an hour-long workout or 10 minutes of meditation, this just lets them break up their routine and gives them a fresh perspective to go back to work with.”
Hooker also happens to be the personal trainer of Rich Barton, co-founder of Zillow, Expedia, and Glassdoor. Barton told GeekWire that healthy, active people are more productive and more fun to work with — and as a result, companies are more successful. He said that “health is part of a virtuous cycle of success, and more and more companies are turning on to this.”
“I’ve known and trained with Ja’Warren for many years and rely on his coaching to help keep my body healthy and my mind calm,” Barton added. “I know he’ll be successful on his mission to bring integrated training to more companies.”
Hooker is fully appreciative of working with technology leaders like Barton and Newell. He said he learns so much from both by just having conversations and learning what motivates them to continue working, despite already having successful careers.
“I tell Rich, ‘man, you sold Expedia, what keeps you going?'” Hooker said. “He just tells me he has a hunger to be innovative. Then I’m like, OK, I could have been fine with this awesome personal training business, but I want to be more innovative and impact more people.”
While he loves learning from his geeky clients, Hooker also noted that Newell asks just as many questions of him.
“He’s very into how minds operate and how people process information, whether it’s athletes or gamers,” Hooker explained. “He asks me a lot of questions about things I’ve never thought about. He’s more interested in other people than he is himself, which is really interesting and super humbling to see from someone at the top of their game.”
Hooker said his team wants to help more companies incorporate fitness and wellness programs, particularly with how much Valve employees have embraced their new workouts.
“The things we do for Valve, you won’t see in most companies,” Hooker said. “But they get maximum results from it. Everyone is loving it.”