Walking meetings can be more engaging, productive and healthier than sitting around a table, but they need to be subtly planned to be truly effective, says Ian Sanders

Most of us aren’t aware of the detrimental effects of sitting, in the same way we weren’t aware of the consequences of smoking, says Nilofer Merchant in her 2013 TED Talk Got a meeting? Take a walk.

She first discovered the benefits of walking meetings after someone, who couldn’t fit her into a regular meeting, suggested she join her interlocutor while walking the dog. Ms Merchant now walks 20-30 miles a week, much of which in the form of meetings, which she points out also avoids the need for additional gym-time.

As well as being a more efficient use of her time, there are health benefits, such as weight-loss, and some protection against cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, agrees, suggesting recently that walking meetings can reduce stress. A Harvard Business Review article by Ted Eytan, Medical Director of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health, argues that walking releases certain chemicals which relaxes our brains.

Walking doesn’t just help us de-stress. It improves employee engagement, not least because side-by-side positioning breaks down hierarchies. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, for example, particularly enjoyed ‘walk and talks’ for first-time meetings.

A breath of fresh air

Getting out into the open can feel liberating to desk-bound workers, says author Sian Beilock in her book, How the Body Knows its Mind. Other research demonstrates that it can improve one’s mood, while a 2014 Stanford University study, ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs,’ estimates that walking—even inside on a treadmill—can increase creativity by some 60% compared with remaining seated.

So how can executives incorporate walking into their daily work routines?

Lure reticent colleagues. Suggest to colleagues that they accompany you to get a coffee outside, and then start the meeting en route. But be as prepared as you would for any internal meeting, with pen, paper and a phone to hand.

Consider the right setting. Seek out quieter side streets, squares and parks where it’s easier to walk side by side, and conversation can flow uninterrupted.

Pick the right topic. Walking side-by-side doesn’t require eye contact, making it easier to have candid conversations. This can be particularly effective if you are seeking honest feedback. It’s also effective for mentoring, problem-solving and catch-ups, but not too good for disciplining or sacking an employee.

Keep it relaxed and intimate. Limit numbers to two or three (a  walk-and-talk board meeting is probably not advisable). And don’t rush. Allow time to pause and reflect at a suitable juncture, but don’t meander aimlessly. You don’t want a long trek back to the office once your meeting is over.

Sing in the rain. A walk and talk should inject some creative freedom into your working day. And if it rains, have a museum, art gallery, or book shop nearby for cover. In short, make it fun!

Ian Sanders is a creative consultant and storyteller, and organises walking meetings with executives in London.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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