MINNEAPOLIS - Three affiliated Twin Cities firms are taking a revolutionary step aimed at improving the health of their employees and the economic health of the companies.
The companies are financial and human resources service firms Salo, Numberworks and Oberon. Numberworks and Oberon are affiliated with Salo and located in the same offices.
Salois engaged in a six-month initiative designed by Minnesota bicycle explorer Dan Buettner to become the first corporate "Blue Zone." In September 2012, Buettner introduced the plan to company employees at a dinner in the Minikahda Country Club.
"I am going to tell you right now that you are here to participate in something new," said Buettner. "This is not a canned program. In fact, it has never been done before."
Buettner proceeded to explain that in his travels, biking around the globe, and in research, he and his group had identified five "Blue Zones", places where people live years longer on average than elsewhere on the planet.
The Blue Zones, according to Buettner are a highlands region of the island of Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, the island of Ikaria, Greece, the island of Okinawa, Japan, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and the city of Loma Linda, California.
Buettner said Loma Linda has a high population of 7th Day Adventists, who live surrounded by fast food outlets. He believes Loma Linda proves that Americans can learn and adopt Blue Zones lessons.
Buettner is the author of books on the subject and he has tried to implement principles derived from his research in programs for cities like Albert Lea, Minnesota and even the entire state of Iowa.
However, the Salo project is his first effort to implement "Blue Zones" strategies in a corporation. Company management feels it fits the "mission" of the corporation.
"(It should help) our vision of doubling the company by the end of 2014, by investing in this program. We're all going to be acting with a higher sense of purpose, a higher sense of happiness, an engagement in all that we do, which can only help to that end," Gwen Martin, Co-founder and Managing Partner of NumberWorks, told the Minikahda diners.
Buettner explained that "Blue Zones" residents routinely live to be centenarians and "They are doing so with vigor. They are riding bikes at 102, chopping wood at 104 and beating a guy 65 years younger than him in an arm wrestle."
The characteristics of long-lived humans are simple.
"They are not running marathons," said Buettner. "They are not pumping iron. They are walking about six miles a day. They eat mostly a plant-based diet. The older you get, the more celebrated you are. You get into your 80's and your 90's, you are not warehoused. You are put to work. You are working for City Council. You are advising the Mayor. In almost all cases, you are living in the home."
"It is a six month program, self selected," Buettner told the diners. "We are not looking for people who do not want to do this. In fact, we do not want people who do not want to do this ... You can leave if you want to. I have told senior management to shy their eyes away. I am not looking."
In fact, almost all of those present signed a personal pledge of participation and the six-month experiment was underway.
A key aspect of Buettner's plan is attaining a sense of "purpose." To that end, he arranged another Minikahda event on a January evening, featuring Life Coach and noted author, Richard Leider of Edina.
"My definition of the power of purpose," Leider told those on hand, "Having a reason to get up in the morning. When you lose that reason, you start to get sick. You are not as productive. You are not as happy and you do not live as long. That is why you can add seven years to your life. Whether it is seven or three, it does not matter to me. What matters is the quality of your life while you are living it. Longevity is the icing on the cake. "
Leider explained a kind of society illness.
"We are so busy, suffering from hurry sickness, always going somewhere, never being anywhere. One of out of three people in our research is suffering today from hurry sickness. What I hear from them over and over is my life is out of control in one way or another.
"What fuels purpose and energy in people's lives is curiosity. When you stop being curious about other people, about life in general, then you start to decline."
Four months after the project launch, the Salo headquarters on 13th Street in Minneapolis are a mixture of whimsy and work. Buettner was impressed and enthused.
"If you look around here, it is a completely open floor plan," noted Buettner. "People are not walled off in cubicles or in offices. It is very easy to make a connection that transcends the usual work connection, like you see in Blue Zones."
Two-thirds of the main work space at Salo is for exactly that -- work. Other than the bright, outdoorsy feel and the available desks built over treadmills, it could be any other office in the Twin Cities. However, the other third of the room is very different.
There is a kitchen and community table area where employees are urged to bring or make lunches; often using recipes gleaned from Blue Zones communities. There is a heavy bean component to most dishes. Employees who prefer to leave the offices for lunch have a guiding graph, indicating the number of steps required to reach various local eateries and return.
Always, there is the concept of movement incorporated into everyday life, not just exercising at a gym, thus the treadmills and the game room, which occupies the rest of the space. Employees are encouraged to take breaks from the work area to play table tennis, pool or foosball. The edges of the room feature window gardens and animated "lucky cat" figures. There is music playing overhead at all times.
"There is always music playing overhead and there are always games going on in the background," said Gwen Martin. "None of us have offices with doors. We all work in kind of a community setting and, really, what that does; it kind of keeps the energy level up."
During the Blue Zones initiative, scheduled meditation sessions have been added to the corporate mix along with Yoga groups. There is a small room for formal exercising for those who wish and a conference room with four treadmill desks facing toward the center.
The real question is, does all of the initiative make a difference? Employees who spoke with KARE 11's Allen Costantini insisted that it did.
"Huge difference in the quality of life," said Brian Faeth, one of Salo's 300 consultants, "My wife and I are huge fans of the Blue Zone Initiative. We have done a lot of things with changing our eating habits, eating better foods."
"I know for me, mother of four active boys, 12-18, there have been a lot of these principles that I am trying to integrate into the home," said Maureen Sullivan, Communications and Marketing. "These small changes, they are starting to accumulate and we are starting to feel the effects."
"For me, the biggest thing that I was really looking for is, I am kind of a self-diagnosed trouble sleeper," said Joan Foley, Comptroller. "So, that has helped me get on a routine, which I have totally seen in my sleep pattern ... I can just tell that my energy level is completely different, more so than anything. I have not gotten sick as much, which is awesome because I am kind of notorious for being sick."
John Folkestad is a co-founder of Salo.
"What is fun about this is we all have something we can unify, get behind. It is a health initiative. It is also, partially, a team-building thing."
"I think the biggest change is making it hip and cool and normal to talk about health and how it applies to you on an everyday basis," commented Amy Langer, the other co-founder of Salo.
Martin said she believes any company could implement the Blue Zones concept.
"It is almost the larger the better because then, the larger the impact of bringing people together and working towards a common goal.
"I would say the best thing that we have gotten most feedback on is really our focus on engagement and overall happiness and purpose."
Improving the bottoms of the employees is one thing. What about the bottom line of the for-profit company?
"We will be coming to the culmination of it in April," explained Martin. "At which point, we will have the baseline from September, the six months metrics and then, really, the result in April, but so far, we can already tell some movement of the needle. Our overall social media exposure has gone up by over 300 percent. We also have seen a movement as far as employee engagement and connectivity. At the end, we will have the business metrics around profitability, bottom line and some of the other metrics that we are tracking right now."
The Social Media growth indicates an increase in contacts by the companies on all social media sites.
The April results may point the way for other firms in Minnesota to experiment with Blue Zones of their own.