SolarCity Has Bottled the Lightning

June 10, 2015

By bucking the trend of ineffective wellness programs, the Elon Musk-supported company has seemingly cracked the code. By embracing new-age tactics, they have made health, wellness, and movement the new status quo in the workspace. And, unlike dated, unsuccessful counterparts, it’s actually working.

We have an injury and illness rate that is 1/3 the national average and continues to drop year over year, says Carlos Ramirez, the company’s vice president of environmental health and safety.

That amazing statistic begs the question, what is it that’s going on at SolarCity and other companies that have seemingly solved the problem? Wellness as a buzzword is nothing new, as attempts have been made to crack the proverbial health nut for decades.


We have an injury and illness rate that is 1/3 the national average and continues to drop year over year.

According to the 2014 survey of employers by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 98 percent of large employers and 73 percent of smaller employers offer at least one wellness program, often implemented in an attempt to reduce the total amount of money spent on employee healthcare. Typical programs have been characterized by large-scale data collection, often including annual blood draws and comprehensive health analysis. After literally getting poked, prodded, weighed and measured, employees are commonly sent away until the next round of analysis.


lifespan treadmill desks at zillow

But does it work? Traditionally speaking, the jury is still out. That’s bad for business, considering that the aforementioned implementation and management costs are substantial. So much so, that the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services believe that even successful programs of the old guard typically require an average of five years to break even on costs. When the goal is improved health for both employees and the bottom line, traditional wellness doesn’t seem to be fit enough.

By analyzing the success of those that have made their efforts clearly effective, it appears that successful, new-age programs are being woven directly into the fabric of company culture, and include work-based options for health promotion. Rather than ramrodding a program into a rigid construct and expecting employees to figure it out after hours, companies such as SolarCity are comprehensively promoting the idea of health, and doing so in the workplace from the top-down.


We believe that poor wellness has an acute and cumulative effect on productivity and efficiency, Ramirez says, shedding light on the company’s cutting-edge philosophy. We provide ergonomic training… and work assessments throughout the year. We also provide a wellness fair that… ensures that our employees are participating in their health. We support bike-to-work and other physical-activity initiatives. We have partnered with local gyms to provide discounted memberships, and on at least one campus we have set up our own gym, complete with [personal] trainers.


We believe that poor wellness has an acute and cumulative effect on productivity and efficiency.


This wholesale dedication is highlighted by an attempt to converge fitness at work and productivity concurrently. SolarCity recently implemented treadmill desks in their working spaces, encouraging their employees to benefit their activity levels while simultaneously working on their professional tasks.


In our case, movement started as a movement.


In our case, movement started as a movement. We are in the testing phase for [treadmill desks] presently and all reports have been outstanding, Ramirez says. Employees love the opportunity to work and move as their bodies were designed to. Employees that can walk for just five minutes at a time feel empowered by choosing to walk and work during conference calls or grinding out e-mail responses. They love the opportunity.

The employees at SolarCity appear to have bought in to Ramirez’ philosophy, or so say the statistics. We shared a recent study titled Killer Chairs regarding the physical challenges with sitting and working all day, [which] resulted in about 50% of our employees requesting a sit/stand work station, he says.

Recent science supports the company’s claim that healthy, active employees are more productive in their professional duties. A year-long research study published by the University of Minnesota found that employees who utilized treadmill desks performed better at work than their seated counterparts. The study’s author, Dr. Avner Ben-Ner, stands behind the practical implementation of his findings. There are real benefits, he says. How else can one improve working conditions, health, and productivity? I think it’s a great thing. A lot of people are very happy having that alternative. It’s very, very beneficial activity.

SolarCity is only one of many companies literally moving towards integrated, sustainable workplace activity. They are joined by modest groups, such as Chicago-based Bright Pink, a non-profit dedicated to fighting breast and ovarian cancer while promoting full-body health, but also by household names Zillow and Dairy Queen.

lifespan treadmill desks at zillow

I love the treadmill desk, said Spencer Rascoff, Zillow’s walking-while-working CEO. The entire company wears their wellness philosophy like a badge of honor, touting their treadmill-desk lifestyle openly. I walk for a few hours a day now at a 2-mph pace. It gives me more energy throughout the day... I do all my email and phone calls while I walk.

Zillow’s movement is widespread across their multiple campuses. The real estate giant has encouraged their employees to follow Rascoff’s lead, while also tracking their cumulative motion through company-sponsored activity trackers. The implementation has resonated with employees, as evident by the digital, and occasionally literal, waiting lines for desks. I love it, says Jenny Hoefel, Zillow’s events specialist. It’s not required for companies to do this, but it’s a great perk that makes me feel better personally and physically.

The attitude at Dairy Queen is similar. By supplying an on-site workout facility, diverse employee health programs, and active workstations, the fast-food icon has made employee health a visible culture at their Minnesota-based headquarters It took baby steps to get where we are today, says Debbie Stordahl, project manager for the company. We offered know your numbers clinics, flu shots, occasional lunch and learn classes, CPR training, shoe fittings… weight loss challenges, and sponsored a local 5K participation. The company’s dedication has paid off, as DQ boasts over 50% employee participation in their on-site exercise facility. We were told to expect 20% participation, so we are very proud of the numbers we are seeing, she says.

In addition to providing healthy programming, Stordahl implies that the company had to impress upon their staff that being health conscious was an appropriate decision while in the workplace. The use of the treadmill desks was a big stepping stone in encouraging our employees to take time out for themselves during the day and they could still work if they chose to, she says. They will continue to be made available.

Not every company has reached this tier of accomplishment. On the contrary, creating cultures of wellness can appear daunting to those on the outside looking in. In an interview by Forbes Magazine, however, Joshua Love, president of Kinema Fitness, detailed the most-effective way that ambitious companies can easily get started down the path of success. In a 4-step plan, he says that companies must first determine employee needs, create a plan to fulfill those needs, build a communication strategy, and then propose incentives for program completion. Google doesn’t just create jobs, they create a culture, one in which people are valued and appreciated every day, he says, using the tech giant as an example. As a result, employees feel cared for and valued.


The baby steps we took initially cost little… and showed our employees that we were vested in their health and well-being.


And if your company isn’t the size of Google, but still has colossal ambition, such as SolarCity? Start with a motivation, and… show that movement during the workday is paramount to good health, and corresponds with increases in productivity, innovation and efficiency, says Ramirez.

Debbie Stordahl at Dairy Queen shares Ramirez's optimism. Anyone wanting to start a Wellness program can do so with minimal investment to start, she says. The baby steps we took initially cost little… and showed our employees that we were vested in their health and well-being.