Clearing customs at Bologna Airport, new arrivals are greeted by advertisements for vacuum-cleaner makers and gear-box suppliers. Welcome to Italy’s manufacturing heartland. Driving down the autostrada on a visit to gym-equipment giant Technogym, one of the Emilia-Romagna province’s most successful businesses, it’s clear that agriculture is another key industry here: fields of kiwifruit vines cover the rolling hills.
This is the landscape from which Technogym’s headquarters appears, the glass-and-timber structure rising grandly out of the countryside on the outskirts of Cesena. The setting is particularly apt as company founder Nerio Alessandri had previously worked as an engineer building machinery used for fruit packaging. It was in 1983, though, that the gym equipment he was cobbling together in his garage on weekends became a full-time pursuit. By 2016, when Technogym went public, its market value was €650m. Its mammoth headquarters, dubbed the Wellness Village, opened in 2012 and is a shrine to health and technology, the two pillars of the brand’s global success.
Five years since the Technogym Village was inaugurated by Alessandri, the then Italian president Giorgio Napolitano and former US president Bill Clinton, it still feels brand new. “We like to keep things very clean here,” says global media director Enrico Manaresi, guiding us past tiny robotic Husqvarna lawnmowers tasked with keeping the grounds that surround the company HQ as pristine as golf greens. In contrast to the outdoor spaces at most major Italian multinationals there isn’t a cigarette in sight here. Smoking is banned, Manaresi explains, as a set of employees jog past. It’s lunchtime and staffers in fitness gear are pounding a warm terracotta-coloured trail, 1km in length, that works its way around the Technogym office.
“We have taken a multi-sensorial approach,” says Alessandri. “The building is designed to move people. It’s designed to treat people well in terms of light, in terms of colours, in terms of materials. And it offers a space that brings the inside and outside together.” There is something of the evangelist about the CEO and president: “This building is an expression of Technogym.”
Little expense was spared in realising the building, which was designed under Alessandri’s keen eye by architect Antonio Citterio. It’s not simply the seat of the company’s administration: this site is also where the more technically intricate gym equipment is manufactured (simpler components are made in Slovakia). The building houses half of Technogym’s 2,000 global staff across departments ranging from R&D to marketing. Natural materials including timber (oak and pine) are deployed generously across the site, from the beams supporting the roof of the light-flooded warehouses to the warm wooden cladding of the in-house gym changing rooms. Combined with the copious amount of glass there’s a lightness and fluidity to the structure’s design and a tangible connectedness to the outdoors.
Inside, meanwhile, the main office’s swirling timber-and-steel staircase stands as the design centrepiece. Each step contains a light box, the colours of which can be changed depending on the occasion. For presidential visits they’re lit green, white and red for the Italian flag; today the stairwell is flooded in the lemon yellow of Technogym’s branding, designed to signify health and vitality.
“I like to keep my classes small and intimate,” says Ethan Esser-Horsham, a scientific R&D analyst at Technogym and a recent recruit from the UK. He’s also one of Technogym’s wellness ambassadors: a group of employees who devote extra time to running classes at the company’s staff and showroom gym inside the purpose-built Wellness Centre.
Today’s class is frightfully fast-paced. Esser-Horsham tosses a medicine ball with intent into the toned arms of a female employee, then encourages two male colleagues to sprint like hopped-up hamsters on Technogym’s Skillmills. The 23-year-old Esser-Horsham says he left his home and a comfortable job (coaching personal trainers) in the UK for the company culture and career development here. He adds that working out with views of golden sunrises and sunsets over the grounds makes the extra hours spent here worthwhile.
“What we have tried to create here is a built environment where doing physical activity or exercise becomes natural,” says Silvano Zanuso, director of Technogym’s medical and scientific department, discussing the two-storey timber-and-glass-lined gym. Its panoramic views of the landscape and the fact it receives full sunlight all day certainly help. “We know people today tend to be sedentary but by building an environment where staff are constantly exposed to the idea of exercise it becomes a strong motivation to do so.”
Zanuso has proved that fitter staff are absent less often and have better mental health. Also, while it’s tough to verify scientifically, there’s a consensus among Technogym’s healthy staff that they are more productive than their counterparts at other Italian multinationals.
Of course, the other reason for having one of Europe’s most beautiful fitness studios is to have the ultimate working showroom for Technogym’s high-end gym equipment. The centre welcomes about 30,000 visitors annually, from hoteliers and property developers checking out the Kinesis flexibility systems and popular Multistations, to the heads of sports teams (Technogym supplies equipment to AC Milan football team, for instance).
As technology has advanced, so too has Technogym’s remit and the health software that accompanies its equipment is a key component of the business. Zanuso takes us into one of the test laboratories where the aerobic capacity of an employee is being tested (the data from this will go on to improve the accuracy of the brand’s software). While his subject today is a former professional cyclist, all of Technogym’s 2,000 staff benefit from the scientific development going on. Staff are entitled to a medical check-up each year, with follow-up advice offered on how to organise their lifestyle and make healthy choices.
The other half of the Wellness Centre is the bustling canteen, or the T-Wellness Restaurant to give it its official name. It’s nothing particularly special to look at but the atmosphere fits the company culture down to a tee. At its entrance employees play table football, while staff inside sit down on Vitra furniture in pastel hues and get stuck into meals falling under three broad categories: vegetarian, organic and Mediterranean (carb-loaded Italian pasta dishes are accommodated in the final category).
A good staff canteen is a key component of any large Italian HQ but here nutrition takes full priority. “It’s a simple concept: just good food, no fries, no beer, no alcohol,” says Zanuso. “So at least once a day, five times a week, our staff are eating properly.” The menu consists of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, from chicory to Swiss chard, all whipped into a variety of dishes by talented head chef Massimiliano Suppressa. Even here in the canteen, though, there are gentle prods and reminders to staff to stay healthy. On a chalkboard an illustrated diagram advises employees on how to balance activity, nutrition and a positive frame of mind.
The Technogym HQ’s open-plan office spaces are designed to facilitate speed and transparency. Sitting in endless meetings is discouraged, with shorter appointments normally taking place at a colleague’s desk and more lengthy brainstorming sessions hosted in glass-sided meeting rooms below the main office floor. The communal tables here are surrounded not by chairs but by exercise balls, making some meetings a slightly comical affair (although undoubtedly this device also deters staff from lingering).
The open-plan layout is another thing Alessandri appreciates because it promotes collaboration. “It builds creativity, which is a very important part of wellness,” he says, perched atop an exercise ball of his own. The brand is capable of being a bit tongue-in-cheek, however. In the office’s smaller break-out spaces, Technogym exercise bikes are installed to provide a quirkier form of seating: these corners are more about idle chit-chat than about burning fat.
The Technogym ethos of vigorously promoting fitness and health through the design and amenities of its headquarters can at times border on fanatical (hardly surprising, really). Yet talking to staff members here and seeing an office environment where good nutrition and exercise are encouraged, it’s clear that brand ethos is contagious and that employees value the nudges.
Too many companies veer off in the exact opposite direction, neglecting employee wellbeing and allowing them to remain sedentary for hours on end. By comparison, the Technogym approach feels invigorating as well as thoughtful and considerate. Moreover, it clearly serves a purpose: while the Italian economy more broadly has been sluggish in recent years, Technogym has whizzed off into the distance.