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Now That We All Have Standing Desks, Will Walking Meetings Actually Catch On?

Scientists show that the walking meeting can have some very positive effects—as long as you don't run into anything.

Now That We All Have Standing Desks, Will Walking Meetings Actually Catch On?

[Photo: VM/Getty Images]

What could be more conducive to good health and good business than a group of suits striding through the corridors of an office building, racking up their step count while they lob buzzwords back and forth? This is just one of the possibilities suggested by the term "walking meeting." Perhaps a lackey could even push a trolley carrying a big-screen TV, so nobody has to go cold turkey on their PowerPoint addiction?

Sitting, as we all know, is up there with tragic Nerf incidents as the leading cause of office death. The answer, so far, has been the standing desk. Now, researchers at the University of Miami have come up with an even healthier solution. After realizing that "no studies have yet evaluated the use of walking meetings in the workplace," lead author Hannah Kling and her team decided to do something about it.

The study focused on sedentary white-collar workers, who don’t tend to get much physical activity during the day. This leads to increased risk of osteoporosis, breast and colon cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Other studies have found that three 10-minute bursts of physical activity—and walking is good enough here—can reduce these risks. Kling’s study, then, examined the "acceptability among white-collar workers of engaging in walking meetings during the workday." That is, can a desk-bound spreadsheet jockey be convinced to get out of their chair for anything more strenuous than a trip to the vending machine?

Hoxton/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Participants from the university were given a Fitbit-like activity tracker to wear for three weeks. The first week was a control, with no walking meetings (which they abbreviate WaM), and then the fun started. First, though, it was important to set up a Walking Meeting Protocol. Here are some of its core components:

  • Set a time and place to meet before your WaM.
  • Create an agenda for your WaM.
  • To make the walk more comfortable, bring items such as water, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Have the group leader assign roles to each walking meeting group member. (i.e., time checker, note taker, path leader).
  • Follow the prescribed route.
  • Walk for at least 30 minutes.
  • After the walking meeting, sit and conclude to wrap up meeting; take care of paperwork or other tasks that could not be accomplished during WaM.

To commence the experiment, a "safe 25- to 30-minute walking path" was mapped out on the university campus. Then, meetings were carried out on the go. The study contains no descriptions of these meetings, other than the reports from participants, but you can imagine, perhaps, a less-fit coworker struggling to keep up as an alpha moderator strides purposefully ahead. Maybe the person assigned to take minutes while walking stumbles over a box of printer paper as they write, leading to the hiring of another employee to walk on point, clearing the corridors and courtyard paths of tripping hazards.

What we do know is that not everything went according to WaM Protocol:

Although the protocol suggested 30 minutes as a minimum for the walking meeting, all groups walked from 30 to 40 minutes. Five groups followed the prescribed path. Of the three groups that did not follow the path, two groups took a different route to accomplish tasks at other campus locations during their walking meeting; the third group took a wrong turn but later rejoined the prescribed path.

To conclude the study, participants were interviewed to get their opinions on WaMs. The results are quite interesting. One participant liked the lack of interruptions and the fact that the meetings were able to be concluded, as postponing is harder to do when you’re on the move already. Another pointed out that "multitasking" is almost impossible whilst walking. By multitasking, they meant sitting "in front of my computer, talking to [another participant], and doing something else." That is, you can’t goof off, checking Facebook.

Another participant said that, "It was very energizing, very invigorating. We got a lot done. We went through our agenda completely, efficiently, and it helped us generate ideas as we were discussing a topic." One participant noted that they used the meetings to help lower their stress levels.

WaMs aren’t always practical—try going over large paper blueprints while walking through a windy park, for example, but in cases where it is possible, it seems like walking meeting are actually a great idea. Walking focuses participants, it gets the body active, which helps you think more clearly, and of course it gives an office drone a chance for much needed exercise.

That the study was done in Miami is quite ironic. Florida is the home of golf, and golf—as we all know—is the OG of WaMs for high rollers. And yet the opportunity for exercise has been curtailed by the use of electric golf carts. Perhaps, then, the same thing will happen in Kling’s ideal office of the future, with all office buildings converted to be 90% corridor, with workers endlessly circling in laptop-equipped golf-carts, high-fiving their coworkers as they go?

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