Who said that meetings have to happen in a room or at a desk?

Like with so many things in life we hardly ask about why we do meetings the way we do. And there is a lot to be said about meetings, but I want to focus on one innovative technique today: walking meetings.

Many famous people from Sokrates to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai or Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerburg regularly use walking meetings. They use them for things like thinking clearly or recruiting new employees. For myself I can say that I love walking meetings – it has so many advantages, that I hardly think twice before heading outside!

What is a walking meeting?

In essence walking meetings are simple. Instead of sitting in a room or staying glued to your desk in front of your webcam, you take a walk. In post-pandemic times this will be walks with the whole group, while we would simply take our phone outside for conference calls. Of course this format doesn’t fit every meeting, but it is worth considering in more cases than you might have thought.

The benefits of walking meetings

But why should you leave the meeting room in the first place? Excellent questions that I can only begin to answer here.

Let’s start with your brain! It needs oxygen to think clearly and come up with good ideas and decisions. Sitting a meeting room chair however brings our blood circulation down delivering less oxygen to the brain. Furthermore the supply of fresh, oxygen-rich air is limited in a meeting room full of people. You can see both effects when you feel a little tired or see people yawning – these are all bodily responses to a lack of oxygen in the brain.

Walking in fresh air is a simple and very effective way to supply your brain with the oxygen it needs. Outside you will breath in more oxygen and the movement of walking will have your blood deliver more of it to your brain. The result: You feel less tired, can think better and make decisions about twice as fast.

If that alone is not enough reason to do walking meetings, consider the added health benefits you get. By moving in fresh air, you will give your spine and whole body a wellness treatment away from the office chair. The better supply with oxygen is also probably not a bad thing for health. In addition a walk in nature (even if it’s just a few trees on a downtown street) lowers cortisol levels and reduces stress – again making us healthier but also happier. And happiness directly feeds back into better performance at out job.

If you have difficult topics to discuss with one or more colleagues, walking can help disarm a situation. Psychologists found that sitting opposite of each other can create a feeling of opposition and fight, while looking in the same direction feels literally like “we’re on the same site, looking at a shared goal together”. In consequence the mere fact of walking in the same direction next to each other can take the heat out of the conversation. Use this benefit for difficult conversations!

Furthermore we tend to speak in a more relaxed tone while outside (maybe partly due to the lower stress levels), which can also be beneficial for difficult discussions. This effect is emphasized if you manage to walk through nature (could just be a little park in the city).

The sensual stimulation while walking also aids our thinking process. Our eyes see new things every few steps, we hear new sounds and smell new smells. This inspires us and helps to stay away from these infamous thinking ruts in which we can get while locked into a meeting room. As a consequence we tend to get more and fresher ideas, while avoiding our thoughts to get stuck in only one direction.

Increased focus is yet another benefit of walking meetings. Apart from making it difficult to get distracted by dabbling on your laptop, a 2016 study shows an increase in attentiveness as well as a mood boost even after just 12 minutes of walking.

I already mentioned the quicker decision making, but this is worth to repeat: the decisions during walking meetings tend to be of the same quality as those from sitting meetings, but these same decisions are reached about twice as fast! Just imagine telling your boss you just increased decision-making performance by 100%!

The final benefit of walking meetings I want to mention is: natural time-boxing. By walking a certain route you automatically give your meeting a time limit. Even if you walk multiple rounds, you get an intuitive spatial measurement of time. Virgin founder Richard Branson uses this aspect, too: He sometimes challenges himself to come up with a “plan of attack” within the time it takes to complete one block.

Some benefits, like improved mood and a health boost, even continue after you returned to the office. It’s like taking a revolutionary medication – only better.

You can see that walking meetings do have a whole bunch of awesome benefits! It’s just our old habits and an environment in which we fear breaking these habits that hold us back.

I hope you will try a walking meeting next time you’re on a call or about to book a meeting room. But however awesome this form of meeting is, is it always the best choice?

When to do walking meetings

You can do walking meetings much more often than you might think: during phone calls, recruiting interviews, 1:1 discussions, thinking and problem solving … . But there are situations in which is makes more sense to sit in a meeting room or in front of your laptop.

If you need to discuss a prototype, look at numbers intently or write a lot (e.g. in a workshop), the walking meeting format is usually not the best option. However, wanting to do it as a walking meeting might lead you to rethink the meeting format in the first place: Do you really need slides? Can’t you listen to the report instead of reading it? I even tried to do group trainings while walking through parks – it worked, but for the parts where we wrote a lot of sticky notes, we went back to the conference room.

Consider the envisioned outcome of a meeting before you decide about the best format. Often times walking meetings will be the better option, but sometimes they’re not.

What is holding us back?

If walking meetings have so many benefits and are so widely applicable, then why don’t we do them more often? In my experience there are to parts to the answer: habits and fear.

Habits often prevent us from even considering a different format before booking that meeting room or sitting down at our desk. The solution to breaking a habit can be found in books like “The Power of Habit”: find the trigger, insert your own action and link the reward. For meetings you should stop and think briefly each time you book a meeting room or schedule a conference call (the triggers). Then consider a walking meeting as an option and finally (if you made it a walking meeting) look at the benefits everybody got. With time you will ingrain that habit and intuitively schedule most meetings for walking whenever possible.

Fear, however, is a tougher aspect. Even in a world with more and more companies calling themselves “agile”, I meet so many people who shy away from breaking established rules. Whether these rules are really set by superiors or are just perceived as rules because “it has always been done that way” doesn’t matter. Out of fear of being laughed at, being seen as childish or being skipped during next promotions people tend to rather stick with the status quo. The solution here is more involved, but all the more worth eat: create an environment without fear, in which people are praised for courage and are not butchered for making mistakes. It takes strong leaders and courageous employees to start such a culture. Get a good agile coach (like me any other good coach) to establish fearless environments.

Once some people can break through old habits and perceived fears, others will follow. If you’re a strong leader (and you don’t have to have a title for that!), lead others by example. The benefits of walking meetings on work and life will make you look back and ask: why didn’t we start this sooner?

Get going!

Walking meetings are possible in many more circumstances than we initially think. And once we start doing it, we quickly see all the benefits:

  • Improved health
  • Clearer thinking
  • Quicker decisions
  • Reduced stress
  • Natural time-boxing
  • Better focus
  • More ideas

Don’t miss out on these benefits. Next time you book a meeting room or set up an online conference, consider making it a walking meeting.

A few sources