Bad Work Meetings? Do This One Thing: Walk the Walk
Try walking meetings for a change.
Posted Nov 30, 2016
Death By Meeting remains one of my favorite book titles about work. Through a fable, the author Patrick Lencioni shows just how many of us die daily in bad meetings. I laughed out loud the first time I heard the title; every single time I say those three words to someone else, they laugh again. It’s a grim cycle of laughter and resignation. Why? Because “death by meeting” is an epidemic. It’s a sickness pervading many work spaces. Mostly we throw up our hands or try to Band-Aid meetings--if I just tweak this one thing….
But you know you’re in a bad meeting when you ask: can I get that hour of my life back? Or you simmer when the same person talks but you can’t get a word in. Or you long for an agenda to save you from drowning in the deep end of aimlessness. Or you daydream about cookies, wine, and other tempting diversions. Or you wish desperately for someone to assign tasks and recap the to-do list. If any of these things are happening, then you want to be saved. Let me share a life-altering practice we instituted in our workplace 2 years ago. Are you ready? World, meet: the Walking Meeting.
If you are able, the walking meeting spells liberation. Let me tell you how the walking meeting came to be. Four years ago, I was hired to start a gender center from scratch on my campus. It was an exhilarating time of making many plans for many hours. I was also the mother of a 2-year old who brought home every day-care cold she could. Between little sleep, parenting a tiny child, and big germs, I was sick--A LOT. I had no time to exercise, which had been a large part of my pre-child life. And, like all us, I spent hours and hours in meetings. Sitting. Something had to change for my own health and the health of my work place.
I suggested to my staff, what if we try walking meetings rather than sitting meetings? At first, we didn’t know if it was workable: how can we take notes? Who are we without computers? Does it matter if people think we’re goofing off rather than actually working? Ultimately, is this method actually efficient? In the beginning, we longed to have a donkey with a laptop on its back trot after us and take notes. Alas. So we created work arounds for note taking and goal setting. We strategized which meetings were especially effective while walking and which weren’t. We also decided we couldn’t manage other people’s impressions about our work culture. The only remaining question became: is a walking meeting actually effective? Guess what? Now two years later, walking meetings have transformed our office.
Here are 5 ways walking meetings will change your life:
A caveat: these meetings can be centered around lots of kinds of movement. In my office, they’re called “walking meetings” because we are able to walk. They can be moving or wheeling meetings, inclusive of all abilities.
1) You Think Better
Both in the walking meeting and for hours after, you’re more creative. You think better. U.S. work culture perpetuates a mind/body dualism. Workers save movement--exercise, yoga, the gym--for after work (or before) but never the twain shall meet. I ask conversely: what is gained by sitting in a meeting? Does sitting help you achieve a goal? Does it get you somewhere you couldn’t get by moving? In a recent New Yorker article, “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” Ferris Jabr tell us what happened when scholars created walking maps of some literary heroes in books such as Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. By tracing the walking of the fictional heroes and actual authors, scholars verified that brilliant thinking and walking are inextricable. Jabr notes, “Such maps clarify how much these novels depend on a curious link between mind and feet. Joyce and Woolf were writers who transformed the quicksilver of consciousness into paper and ink. To accomplish this, they sent characters on walks about town.”
If hard science feels more convincing than literary genius, then Jabr notes how a 2016 Stanford study by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz tested whether walking while thinking improves creativity. Guess what--it really does. In four experiments, they asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to “complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated.” Who doesn’t want clearer, better, more creative thinking? An added bonus: being outside and in new spaces invites innovation.
2) You’re Not Depressed
Better yet: you feel joy. Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times renowned Phys Ed columnist, notes a 2016 study confirming “How Exercise Might Keep Depression At Bay.” You read that right. New studies indicate that exercise actually prevents depression. I’m not suggesting some reductionist non-drug approach to serious depression. I’m pointing to some simple ways that we could incorporate movement at work that might, in the long run, make us happier-- as humans and as workers. The upshot of Reynolds’ reporting is that for the first time scientists have evidence that exercise prevents depression, “based on how aerobically fit they were, those men and women with the lowest fitness were about 75 percent more likely to have been given diagnoses of depression than the people with the greatest fitness. The men and women in the middle third were almost 25 percent more likely to develop depression than those who were the most fit.” Those are powerful numbers.
Yet few workplaces take those numbers seriously enough to incorporate movement into work hours, seeing it as inefficient to production. Sadly, the percentage of miserable workers remains staggeringly high. Forbes cites, “A recent Gallup survey found only 13% of employees are engaged at work, meaning the vast majority of working adults doesn't enjoy their work. By one recent measure, this costs US companies roughly $450–$550 billion annually.” In the article, Forbes shares that, “A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved 10% less productive.” It’s disturbing to quantify happiness in terms of company production-- is even your happiness something to be bought and sold on the free market? Yes. Meanwhile, workers gain by reclaiming their thinking, their mental and physical health, and their own agency to be creative however small or big.
3) Walking Meetings Are Efficient
Check your stats. My meetings are often 80% talk and 20% notes. And if the bulk of meetings are about communicating, then why not move while doing it? Our office now knows what agendas are best for “walking meetings” and what agendas are best for “sitting meetings.” Anything that needs a lot of processing, brainstorming, or creating is perfect for a walking meeting. Conversely, anything that needs drilling down in front of a computer--schedules, correspondence, PR/Marketing, obviously needs to be at a computer. Why would we ever think that all meetings, with different kinds of work required, would use the same formula: sit for an hour in front of computers and talk? The other upside: in the off chance that your meeting is a bust, you got enough exercise to make your brain and mood lift.
4) Walking Meetings Help Solve Personnel Issues
Sometimes when you walk side by side with someone, rather than directly face them, you can have more honest conversations. I say this as someone who, as Georgetown linguist Dr. Deborah Tannen says, seeks to gain gendered rapport by insisting on looking you in the eyes always. Our office has now used walking meetings for some of our more challenging conversations. Caveat: large group meetings obviously never work as walking meetings unless you’re at a racetrack. When you’re walking, ideally outside, the other person can feel less trapped, more free, and more able to take the time to slow down and consider what they’re saying, in part because they have the excuse of walking to keep them engaged. It’s like playing a video game with someone or driving on a long trip. The two people become co-knowers as opposed to sitting in an office with overdetermined meaning where roles and hierarchies are often too cemented and clear across a desk.
Walking can also solve personal issues--who doesn’t bring those to work? In the terrific, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes how central walking is to one of my favorite literary heroes, Elizabeth Bennett. Solnit says, “For [Jane Austen and the readers of Pride and Prejudice], as for Mr. Darcy, [Elizabeth Bennett's] solitary walks express the independence that literally takes the heroine out of the social sphere of the houses and their inhabitants, into a larger, lonelier world where she is free to think: walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.” Elizabeth Bennett figures out her life while walking: who is she supposed to be? What is she supposed to do? If it’s good enough for “Lizzie” then it’s good enough for me.
5) You’ll Avoid “Death by Sitting” (Hopefully)
How many headlines have you read that say, “sitting is the new smoking?” Nicholas Bakalar, in The New York Times article, “Sitting Increases the Risk of Dying Early,” notes, “They estimated mean sitting time across countries at 4.7 hours a day. Reducing that time by 50 percent, they calculated, would result in a 2.3 percent decline in all-cause mortality.” This is a global study, but I don’t know of anyone in the U.S. who is sitting 4.7 hours a day doing so-called “white or pink collar work” --it’s more like double that at a minimum. That’s more grim--people sitting 8 hours a day are just dying faster.
Without providing a history of capitalism, different kinds of labor, leisure theory, electronic revolution, work laws, etc that would fill five books--basically, we’re sitting more, exercising less, and dying because of it. In my line of non-profit, social-justice work, I view walking meetings as a kind of “self-care” as the current parlance suggests. How do I and my office maintain equilibrium in the face of great human suffering? Walking meetings are a defiant joy strategy. We have little control over how we die, but I’d rather not die sitting at my desk, as much as I love my work (and I do). An additional benefit: workers start the day with more delight knowing they won’t sit for eight hours on end. Let’s all try to die from something else.
If you’re convinced, here are a few tricks and tips. It helps to have either pockets or a backpack or bag to carry a small notebook, a pen, your phone, and your agenda. I used this convenient bag here. Do you need something more gender neutral? It's out there or grab a clipboard.
Print out your weekly and daily task list to make notes on and when you return to work, quickly take 10 minutes to type in your handwritten notes.
Commit to this innovation for a month in your office before seeing if it works.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Is he right? Let me know over at Psychology Today if walking meetings work for you.