by Aytekin Tank
“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 34
The air is crisp.
The sun is shining.
And I’m so glad to be outside.
I’ve just spent the past several hours, head down, solving an unexpected product development issue.
Honestly, nothing feels better than venturing out after an intensely focused morning at my desk. I’m walking and talking with a team member about some ideas they have for our next project.
We’re lucky that our San Francisco office is located near the beautiful Embarcadero; the 3-mile-long seawall is the perfect place to clear my head, get some exercise, and engage in my favorite type of discussion — the walking meeting.
Among our teams, it’s no secret that I don’t love meetings (no one has yet to complain about my disdain). Pointless status updates that take everyone away from creative, high-value work are a huge pet peeve for me.
In fact, my skepticism of traditional meetings is one of the main reasons I decided against open-office floor plans. Our employees work in small, cross-functional teams of four to six people.
Each group includes a designer, a developer, a UX specialist, and other key roles. And each team gets its own private office. That means a variety of decisions can quickly be made without formal meetings.
This working arrangement has proven so effective that we have adopted it within all three JotForm locations. Obviously, we haven’t done away with meetings completely.
People still need to collaborate with me, with other team members, and the community at large.
However, our goal is always the same: Maximize meetings to be as effective, enjoyable, and energy-boosting as possible. Truthfully, we sometimes accomplish that objective better than others.
But, over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks for leading meetings that don’t make participants wish they were, instead, napping in their cars.
I always begin by identifying my primary objective and matching it to a corresponding meeting format.
Types of meetings
Generally speaking, meetings can be divided into six categories:
- Status updates (pointless)
- Information sharing (use Slack)
- Decision making (often necessary)
- Problem-solving (often necessary)
- Innovation (useful)
- Team building (useful)
As you can see, the first two objectives can often be accomplished via enterprise messaging software, phone, or email.
Translation: There’s no need for a meeting. The exception might be a large company announcement that deserves human interaction.
Any objective that falls into the final four categories — that could not be resolved within cross-functional teams — might warrant an in-person meeting. If only two people are involved, and the weather is accommodating, I always prefer a walking meeting.
History shows my preference for thinking, discussing, and decompressing bipedally isn’t at all unusual.
Why embrace walking meetings?
Aristotle allegedly instructed students while strolling the Lyceum. Sigmund Freud conducted many of his analyses by foot.
And Charles Dickens routinely walked about 20 miles a day with no particular destination in mind. The writer once walked an impressive 30 miles from his London home to his country residence at 2 am.
As Sports Illustrated reported, Dickens found writing to be “painful,” and walking was a significant destresser after a long day.
More recent walkers of the entrepreneurial sort include Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Weiner, and Steve Jobs.
Here are some of the reasons both myself and others prefer walking meetings:
1. They increase candor
Walter Isaacson, who wrote Jobs’ biography, told Forbes that his subject insisted their first meeting happen on the move; it was Jobs’ preferred way of both meeting someone and having a serious conversation.
LinkedIn’s California headquarters even has its own bike path, frequently used by colleagues engaging in walking meetings.
Igor Perisic, LinkedIn’s vice president of engineering, lamented to Huffington Post that desks create unwelcoming barriers during one-on-one meetings:
“You feel like you’re at the principal’s office. That’s not what you want.”
Agreed. I want everyone at work to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas with me and anyone else on our team. And the casual nature of walking and talking helps achieve that goal.
“When we walk we let our guard down,” says Marily Oppezzo, a post-doctoral student at Stanford School of Medicine. “Walking releases your filter. Ideas you hold back in a conference room come spilling out when you’re moving.”
For this reason, walking meetings are particularly useful when decision making, team building, and bonding are of critical importance.
2. They enhance creative thinking
“Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” — Henry Thoreau
Walking seems to be a catalyst for generating fresh perspectives, discoveries, and ideas. Oppezzo conducted a research study to determine the action’s effectiveness on creativity.
Her project involved asking test subjects to find alternate uses for everyday objects like car tires after either walking or sitting.
For example, one participant suggested using a clothing button as a doorknob for a tiny house, a miniature strainer, and a ground marker for path tracking. Oppezzo found the walkers came up with more unique ideas than the sitters, both while walking and after walking.
Another study published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology found both children and adults performed a memory exercise better while walking than sitting.
While researchers aren’t quite sure of the reason, they speculate movement produces superior brain functioning compared to that of typical multi-tasking. Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman echoes this theory:
“I suspect the greatest mental benefits of walking are explained not by what it is, but by what it isn’t. When you go outside, you cease what you’re doing, and stopping trying to achieve something is often key to achieving it… And in some hard-to-specify way, even the distractions of walking — traffic noise, people — seem to help.”
Regardless of the science behind it, some of my best ideas have resulted from long strolls with no specific agenda in mind. Which is why I default to walking meetings when I want to innovate or solve problems collaboratively.
3. They’re good for you
This one’s a no-brainer — walking makes you feel good.
The average professional spends an average of 9.3 hours per day seated and 7.7 hours per day sleeping. While I don’t consider sitting to be “the new smoking,” I have found that regular movement is essential to my well-being.
One study found 12 minutes of walking to increase happiness, vigor, and attentiveness significantly more than the same time spent sitting. Though I prefer to walk in nature, I’ll take whatever I can get. Some experts even say it might be better than running:
“Walking can be as good as a workout, if not better, than running,” says Dr. Matt Tanneberg, CSCS, a sports chiropractor.
“I see patients all the time that plateau from running; they will run the same distance, speed and time, day in and day out. You need to constantly be switching up your exercise routine in order to get the maximum benefit for your health.”
It’s nice to know that walking meetings compliment my morning personal training sessions.
Quick tips for walking meetings
Though walking meetings are fairly self-explanatory, the following preparations can make them even more fruitful:
- Plan your route: Know exactly where you’re going ahead of time. You don’t want to distract yourself with a map or risk a 30-minute walk turning into a 90-minute time suck.
- Review relevant documents: Know your meeting objectives and glance over supporting information beforehand. Also, don’t forget to share any necessary information with participants.
- Take follow-up notes: Use your smartphone to take voice notes, send yourself an email, or jot down important intel post-meeting.
Oracle executive David Haimes publicly committed to conducting more #walkingmeetings in 2014. Haimes says the shift has resulted in greater productivity due to a decrease in typical office interruptions.
“In general, each of us jots down the things we want to discuss on a scrap of paper before we set off,” says Haimes. “I can easily jot a reminder on my smartphone if I have an action I think I might forget. If we need to do something on a computer, we just end at my office and spend a few minutes in front of it together, but you would be surprised how little we need this.”
To walk or not to walk?
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to experiment with walking meetings: Enhanced creativity, greater candor, and physical fitness are just a few potential benefits.
While I still prefer the boardroom for more formal presentations, I will continue to seek opportunities to walk and talk whenever I can.
What about you?
Does your organization embrace walking meetings? Why or why not?