Off the Wall

By Queenan, Joe | Chief Executive (U.S.), March 1999 | Go to article overview

Off the Wall


Queenan, Joe, Chief Executive (U.S.)


Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a Berkeley, CA, energy-bar maker that had installed two 22foot high artificial rock walls in its corporate gym as a means of building company morale. Clif Bar employees were encouraged to spend their breaks scaling walls in an effort to stay fit and happy. The innovation was so enticing that one young product manager had quit her former job to work at the company, saying, "This is too good to be true."

Obviously, there is a temptation among cynics to dismiss this sort of corporate "perk" as just another Left Coast touchyfeely gimmick, designed to trick employees into thinking that work is something other than work. But cynics and naysayers do so at their peril. Increasingly, U.S. companies are finding it hard to attract young employees without offering unconventional perks such as indoor rock-climbing.

For starters, many entrepreneurial, nonunionized outfits demand long workdays, making it impossible for employees to establish a regular, after-work exercise regime. And conventional in-house gyms, with those dreary rows of stairmasters, treadmills, and rowing machines, have long since lost their ability to excite Gen X-ers. As a result, many companies are resorting to exotic in-house exercise programs to keep employees happy.

For example, at least 25 U.S. firms now offer their employees the use of indoor shark tanks to exercise in on their lunch breaks. The tanks, which vary in size, are generally stocked with reef and lemon sharks, none of which are big enough to do any serious damage to a human being, but all of which look sufficiently daunting to give employees a momentary "rush."

"Jumping into a tank filled with underfed sharks is a good way of working off my aggressions," says Kip Taglatei, a programmer at Juice Solutions, a Palo Alto software firm that specializes in data retrieval from computers damaged in bar fights and fraternity brawls. "I love my work, but I hate the people I work with and the sharks enable me to feel more centered." Vern Gaitskill, personnel director at Juice Solutions and a former Navy SEAL, came up with the idea for the shark tank after noticing how many staffers were getting injured at lunch-time in pick-up basketball games.

"We had three heart attacks, four broken legs, and one broken back in the first five years I worked here," explains Gaitskill. "Since we put in the shark tank, we've just had a couple of small nips. There was that one gal who lost a hand when the fish supplier sent us a baby great white instead of a leopard shark.

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