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Advocates Urge Running a Meeting by Walking It
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  4/14/2009
 
 

Forget talking the talk. Instead, put your foot down at your next meeting—one step at a time. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. are urging organizations to hold walking meetings, or “meetings on the move.”

The idea is to get people to become active again—just as they were as children—according to Debra Haire-Joshu, professor of social work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

About 40 percent of Americans are couch potatoes, she said, citing a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such a meeting “kind of exemplifies how you can make simple changes and really be able to impact health in a very broad sense,” says Haire-Joshu, who serves as the director of the school’s Obesity Prevention and Policy Research Center.

Onkar S. Sandhar, president of the ChaiBerry Massage Co. in Toronto, says he holds meetings on the move “all the time.”

“What we found is that our meetings end up being much more effective, shorter and more innovative,” he told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

They’re an improvement over the meetings he used to have to attend when he was a consultant for a major national organization.

“I hated going to those meetings because they were so long, boring and tiring. At the end, I always felt like I needed an energy break.”

However, with walking meetings, “the blood and oxygen is flowing for effective brainstorming sessions. And because we’re walking, we can’t have long meetings because it’s just too much physical energy to walk for an hour and we wouldn’t be mentally effective after that.”

 

Oberon, LLC, a professional staffing firm in Minneapolis that provides experienced HR executives, has four walk stations in its conference rooms in addition to walk stations at individual work spaces. The treadmills operate at a maximum speed of 2 miles per hour.

"Walking conference meetings are commonplace at Oberon," Managing Partner CJ DuBe told SHRM Online in an e-mail. "The treadmills were added to encourage movement throughout the work day, spur creativity, and increase energy and productivity levels."

Working in motion is a concept that sits well with Michelle Johnston, health promotion supervisor of student health services at the University of California, Davis.

“I’ve used it as a way to get out of the office and get the blood flowing,” Johnston said in an e-mail. “I find it especially helpful in the afternoon or after a number of back-to-back meetings. I think for pairs or small groups, it can work great.”

Colleague David A. Ritz, vocational rehabilitation counselor at the college’s disability management services, has been championing the idea on campus. He’s been part of a group that has held several such meetings since October 2008.

“In general, they were very successful,” Ritz says, although he cautions they move at the pace of the slowest person and are not going to equal exercise.

“The moving meeting doesn’t go really fast,” he told SHRM Online. “We already decided it wasn’t going to be exercise. What you’re doing is just kind of moseying along,” he said, likening it to the pace of shopping at a mall. “It’s a moving meeting first, not exercise, not stretching. It’s a meeting.”

Weather will be a factor. In Sacramento, for example, the temperature can reach 105 degrees, he noted, so meetings on the move likely would be held in the early morning during the summer.

While he works in an atmosphere where people walk or bike across campus, organizations in more urban settings can take advantage of public parks or courtyards. This could work for groups of eight to 10 people if the chair stopped and addressed the group whenever they reached a corner.

However, one such meeting with 15 people in a courtyard was only marginally successful, recalled Employee Health Services physical therapist Buster Porter, who with Ritz is trying to promote the concept on the U of C campus.

“It was a little too many people to try to keep on task” for nuts-and-bolts type discussions, Porter said. However, it might work with a large group “if you were just discussing concepts like future challenges or future strategies.”

A larger group could be broken up and given an objective to work on while they walk, suggests Washington University’s Haire-Joshu.

She thinks moving meetings are great for brainstorming, planning or informational sessions, and routine problem-solving. She’s been one of about four people conducting a few 30-minute meetings since the beginning of 2009.

Haire-Joshu and colleague Tim McBride, associate dean for public health at Washington University, think movement and being outdoors might prompt different perspectives. Other side benefits, they believe, include improved team spirit and productivity.

And just as being sedentary is a learned behavior—children are rewarded for sitting quietly at their desk, she says—so is walking at a pace that allows a meeting to be conducted.

“It’s not a power walk, but it’s not a short shuffle, either,” Haire-Joshu told SHRM Online. “It’s got a definite clip to it.”

Brian Brandt, of the Summit Solution Group in Texas, is a big fan of meetings on the move.

 “At the start of many meetings, I’ve asked the question, ‘Is there any aspect of this meeting that can’t be done while we’re walking?’ ” he wrote in an e-mail.

“At that point, we sometimes need to cover some items that will require web access or for us to look at materials, but once that’s done we’ve walked around outside.

“This not only provides some always helpful exercise, but also role models health and fitness to others. Added benefits include connecting with customers and employees, observing staff in action, finding opportunities and weaknesses and enjoying fresh air and sunshine.”

Getting buy-in can be tough, though.

“’No’ comes out pretty quickly, I’ve got to say,” U of C’s Porter said. “There is the trip hazard issue. I don’t have the right footwear issue. Windy, allergies, rainy, cold. All those come up,” he said, ticking off excuses—including confidentiality concerns—that he’s heard. “Even [being] outside … that issue [of confidentiality] just comes up.”

Conducting meetings while walking is an alternative to the Mayo Clinic’s vertical workstation, which is fitted with a standard treadmill that allows a person to walk while working at his or her computer, or the seven-seat conference bike.

Organizations looking to implement meetings on the move may want to time it with BlueCross BlueShield’s (BCBS) 2009 National Walk@Lunch Day, scheduled for April 29. The aim, according to BCBS, is to incorporate physical activity into the workday and encourage people to walk at lunchtime every day.

Some tips for holding meetings on the move:

  • Appoint someone to run the meeting.
  • Set an agenda, as you would with any meeting.
  • Keep the agenda short, and be aware that some types of meetings don’t lend themselves to a walking meeting.
  • Plan a simple route such as at local parks, tracks and empty office areas.
  • Consider whether the route includes water fountains and restrooms.
  • Appoint a “tour director” to let the group know when turns or stops are going to occur.
  • Use a microphone if the group is large.
  • Appoint someone to take notes, or consider using a tape recorder to capture notes.
  • If there is a note-taker, stop periodically to allow this person to catch up and to summarize the notes to the group.
  • Recognize that the note-taker will fatigue more quickly than the others and that the notes will become illegible unless the note-taker can stop periodically.
  • Encourage use of comfortable shoes.
  • Be open to ideas on improving such meetings.
  • Vary the location to increase creativity.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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