Walking Meetings in the COVID Era

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By Dr David Brendel
July 21, 2020
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Research in recent years has demonstrated that work-related walking meetings have potential benefits. Most obviously, walking is a safe form of exercise that can enhance physical and mental health. For so many people who are sedentary for much of their long workdays, this benefit alone is substantial. Instead of spending more sedentary time during meetings in an office or conference room, why not get moving? It can improve our health status by promoting cardiovascular fitness, weight management, sleep quality, and mental well-being.

But in addition to these health benefits, research shows that walking meetings might enhance brainstorming, creativity, and productivity. A particularly remarkable 2014 study published by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz revealed that 81% of participants scored higher on a test of creative thinking when they were walking (in comparison to when they were seated). The article, entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, noted that walking increases the “free flow of ideas” and is “a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

The research for walking meetings is not all positive, however. The same study found that for meetings where consensus building, problem solving, and decision making were essential, face-to-face meetings are preferable. In other words, it’s best to be seated face-to-face when convergent thinking is warranted (with meeting participants aiming to coalesce around a point-of-view and action steps). We should be mindful of the agenda for a meeting when deciding how to conduct it. Walking meetings, the research suggests, are best suited to meetings in which brainstorming, innovation, and divergent thinking are the key goals.

Of course, walking meetings should be consensual and no one should feel forced to do it. Some people may have physical limitations that preclude this option. Sometimes the weather won’t cooperate. In some work locales during certain times of day, there might not be a suitable place near the office to walk and talk at the same time. Crowded sidewalks in noisy downtown areas, or the absence of sidewalks in office parks along highways, can create barriers. But with some open-minded thinking and flexibility, most workers can find time and ways to do walking meetings on a fairly regular basis. It’s best to prepare for the meeting (review any necessary documents in advance); keep the group small (no more than two or three people); and use a recording app on a smart phone to capture the discussion, or jot down notes immediately afterward.

How do these considerations play out in the new era of COVID-19, with viral transmission risks and social distancing requirements? There are no empirical data yet on the pros and cons of walking meetings in the current situation. But there are some reasonable hypotheses and considerations we might begin to entertain on the topic.

There are two types of walking meetings in the COVID-19 era: in-person and remote. For the former, appropriate social distancing (and use of masks where required) is essential. An outside walking meeting could be an appealing, and possibly safer, alternative to having a face-to-face meeting inside. Some medical research suggests that the likelihood of coronavirus transmission is higher in enclosed, poorly ventilated indoor settings than it is outside. For those of us eager to talk with a colleague in person rather than by phone or video conference, a walking meeting might be a serious consideration.

Walking meetings also can be done remotely under carefully planned circumstances. Whether holding a smartphone to one’s ear or using Bluetooth-enabled AirPods, we can walk significant distances while also having effective conversations. One or both people, of course, can be ambulating during the meeting. It’s most considerate to let the other person know at the outset whether you’re walking or seated.

With remote walking meetings, it’s best to find a quiet route and avoid roads where sirens, motorcycles, or other loud sources of noise might cause distractions. Alternatively, you may choose to walk together remotely using a treadmill and video chat. This type of meeting is best reserved for colleagues or clients whom you know well, rather than with people whom you’re just getting to know or to whom you are offering a new service. It’s important to remember that the empirical evidence suggests that walking meetings are best for brainstorming sessions, and not advantageous when the aim is to converge on solving a specific problem and making a major decision.

The sea of change wrought by COVID-19 creates great opportunities for us to rethink how we work and relate to others. The nature of work meetings has been upended, with tens of millions of workers in the United States now interacting with colleagues and clients via a computer screen or a smartphone. For certain types of work-related communication, a walking meeting might be ideal. When planned and executed thoughtfully, walking meetings afford us a chance for healthy exercise at the same time that we get to think, talk, and create with colleagues. Employers and organizational leaders should consider proactively encouraging walking meetings under specified circumstances.

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