This company saved $300k on insurance by giving employees Fitbits

by: Nancy Gohring — Writer | Nancy is a freelance journalist who started writing about mobile phones just in time to cover the transition to digital.

A year ago when Appirio said it was hoping to use data collected from employee wearables to negotiate a better deal on its health insurance bill, it seemed like a stretch. Could information that Appirio cobbled together about how many steps a couple hundred workers took each day convince an insurance company to lower its rates?

It turns out Appirio cut a significant chunk from its insurance bill by doing just that. “When our [insurance] renewal came up for 2014, they shaved 5 percent off our renewal because of what we invest in CloudFit,” said Shannon Daly, vice president of HR Operations for Appirio. Five percent translates to $280,000 forAppirio, a consulting company that builds cloud projects for business customers.

CloudFit is the internal name Appirio gives to its wellness program which includes Fitbit trackers as well as a new service that uses Google Hangouts to offer employees live video sessions with a trainer.

The program got started when Appirio signed up with Anthem, an insurance provider, which offered the company $20,000 to start a wellness program. Appirio decided to use the money to buy fitness trackers for workers and institute programs so workers could share information about their progress with each other. It also hired a company, Spire Wellness, to help manage the program. 

Using data collected from the fitness wearables as well as case study examples mined from a Chatter group around the wellness program, Appirio was able to convince Anthem that the fitness program will cut cost for the insurance company. “In the long run, they’re hoping that if we’re incenting employees to be fit, there’s a direct correlation to the claims that come in,” Daly said.

Showing Anthem data about the results of that program led to an additional $20,000 award to expand the program this year, as well as the 5 percent overall cost reduction.

Appirio isn’t stopping there. “That was a great beginning for us,” Daly said. “We hope to come down another 5 percent if we can” next year.

This is the second year that Appirio is offering the fitness wearables and it’s learned a lot along the way. It also has plans to improve the program, for example by adding more automatic data analytics capabilities.

Ditching Jawbone for Fitbit

The company started out by issuing 200 Jawbone UP fitness wearables to employees early last year. But soon quality issues around the devices became a problem. More than a third of users were seeing the battery life quickly decline or experiencing unexplained shut downs, said Chris Barbin, co-founder and CEO of Appirio.

“[Jawbone’s] customer support was fantastic. They would replace them. But in some cases it happened two or three times,” he said.

Appirio created a poll on Chatter to ask employees which device they’d prefer when the company expanded the program. They could choose from the Nike FuelBand, Fitbit, or the Jawbone UP — and Fitbit won out, he said.

The program is capped at 400 people for now. The company has been taking a measured approach, Barbin said, monitoring interest, adoption rate, and benefit. The goal, however, is to distribute Fitbits to everyone in the company.

Wrestling with data

Since neither Jawbone nor Fitbit has data tools designed for corporate users, Appirio does some manual work and has also been developing its own systems to learn the most from the data. For instance, Appirio would like to aggregate user data to easily create reports that show how much activity workers across the company are doing. There’s no way to do that automatically so for now it manually combines information that it collects both from a Chatter group for Fitbit users as well as from the group of Appirio users who have signed up to share information with each other on the Fitbit dashboard.

“Our goal is to work with some of our providers to build an app that aggregates this and automates it,” Barbin said.

Appirio had built a prototype aggregation engine for Jawbone but that was shelved with the switch to Fitbit. It’s now doing some work to try to do the same with Fitbit data.

Once Appirio is done developing an app that aggregates the Fitbit data, it expects to share its experiences so that other businesses can benefit from the work Appirio did, Barbin said.

It also hopes to develop integrations that pull Fitbit data into Chatter and Salesforce. For now, employees can be part of two separate groups. There’s a Chatter group for employees who want to discuss fitness — the most active Chatter group at Appirio, which includes trainers from Spire who offer training and workout suggestions. In addition, employees can choose to share their Fitbit data with co-workers in the Fitbit app. Appirio would like employees to be able to see the Fitbit data within Chatter so that workers don’t have to visit two different sites.

Currently, 100 of the 400 Fitbit users have chosen to join the group in the Fitbit app that lets them share data from their wearables. People can decide what data they want to share. “A lot of people are sensitive about sleep data but not necessarily about step count,” Barbin said. “Some people block their goal data.”

Joining the groups and sharing any data is totally optional. “We don’t want to be big brother, like, ‘we gave you this and we want to see what you’re doing’,” he said.

Using videoconferencing for fitness training

In addition to issuing Fitbits, Appirio has just started a new feature in the CloudFit program that offers workers sessions with a personal trainer, conducted over Google Hangouts. Spire Wellness, the company Appirio contracted with to help manage the CloudFit program, supplies the trainers.

Participants set up meetings with a trainer to develop a fitness plan and talk about progress. The trainers also develop programs for workers, showing them how to do certain exercises. In addition, if workers want to get together with a team of co-workers and do a workout at home, live with the trainer, they can.

The trainer offering has just started and has 20 workers using it. It costs $400 for a 10-week program; Appirio covered the fee for initial sign ups. It’s also working on developing programs that might offer workers additional 10-week sessions for free for referring co-workers to the program.

A clear ROI

The benefits of the overall CloudFit program have been very clear and include both direct dollar savings for Appirio as well as indirect benefits. “It’s such a high ROI,” Barbin said. “We’re spending in the tens of thousands for something that will get us hundreds of thousands in savings. But more important is the collaboration we get. People want to do stuff together. As a virtual company, this is a way to do that while attacking wellness.”

Appirio has around 1,000 workers including 150 people in San Francisco, 200 in India, 100 in Indianapolis and the rest spread in offices around the world.

The program has been attractive to workers everywhere, Barbin said. “I was blown away,” by the interest from people in the India office, he said. “They’re all about this.”

Workers in European offices are among those who have signed up for the video trainer offering.

“It’s proven to be a great way of getting a virtual workforce to collaborate, to be a bit competitive, to drive wellness in a measured way,” Barbin said.