“Software engineer” might sound like a sedentary role, but it doesn’t have to be. Janice Lan schedules walking meetings to break the sitting habit.
“Walking meetings are preferable for one-on-ones because it actually gives you a break from staring at a computer screen,” says Lan, a software engineer at Sift Science, which develops machine learning technology to detect fraud. “I walk with either a manager or a peer, usually when we talk about high-level things.”
A walking meeting is just what it sounds like: a meeting that takes place during a walk rather than in a conference room or office. People can hold walking meetings on sidewalks and park trails or inside shopping malls and convention centers if the setting isn’t too noisy.
“All of our employees to some extent use walking meetings to break out of the sedentary lifestyle,” says Robert Manigold, a partner at web and app development agency Code Koalas in Kansas City, Mo. “Being away from computers usually means that the conversations are more theoretical in nature or have to do with the human element of an issue, problem or concern in the workplace.”
Walking meetings aren’t new. There's a 2013 Ted talk on walking meetings; Steve Jobs is said to have been a fan of walking meetings; and West Wing fans will easily remember the TV show’s signature walk-and-talk sequences. But in the tech world, are they practical? For people who spend their days tied to screens – monitoring, coding, data-crunching, configuring – is a walking meeting productive?
Advocates say yes, with some caveats.
There are enough options for note-taking and app access that make walking meetings doable for technical people, says David Aktary, founder of AktaryTech, which provides application development, consulting and recruiting services.
“It’s absolutely possible (and beneficial) for people who are co-located, whose business is sufficiently tech-enabled, and who have smartphones,” Aktary says. “Notes can be taken on phones, either by typing texting-style, or by making voice memos. For checking GitHub issues, there are apps for that. Need to verify something on your timesheet? Yep, there’s an app for that.”
Getting outside can help energize people and spark creativity. It’s great for body and mind, says Jonathan Levley, vice president of Levley Marketing. His firm holds walking meetings that typically start at a local coffee shop and continue along Stevens Creek Trail in Mountain View, Calif.
“Our digital marketing work is very technical, but it requires a clear head space for creativity,” Levley says. “The coordination is no more complicated than any other lunch meeting. We simply recommend comfortable shoes, good company, and a great coffee.”
Judging by the data, there’s no shortage of meetings that could potentially be turned into walking meetings. Employees meet eight times per week on average, while senior executives in high tech, collaborative industries meet 17 times per week on average, according to a 2014 study conducted by research firm Ovum for remote access vendor LogMeIn.
If a fraction of those sit-down meetings could be conducted on a walk, there are significant health benefits to be gained, researchers find.
Changing just one seated meeting per week at work into a walking meeting increased the weekly work-related physical activity levels of white-collar workers by 10 minutes, according to a study published by public health researchers with the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine (See: Opportunities for Increased Physical Activity in the Workplace: the Walking Meeting).
What good is 10 minutes? It can make a dent in recommended activity levels. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise to improve overall cardiovascular health. Often-cited research from Taiwan suggests that even 15 minutes of exercise a day can boost life expectancy by three years compared to an inactive lifestyle.
Plus, research shows walking can stimulate creativity. Stanford University researchers found that creativity levels are significantly higher for people who are walking compared to those who are sitting. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking, according to a 2014 study authored by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz. (See: Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking)
Walking meetings can enable more engaged conversations and encourage greater rapport among participants, advocates say.
It’s a more casual way to talk about technical challenges, and it winds up improving workplace relations, says Zorah Fung, a software engineer at Sift Science. “Because the job is so technical and so much time is spent in code, taking walking meetings actually ends up helping with personal working relationships,” Fung says. “Getting a chance to talk in a casual way outside of the physical office generally develops a different kind of bond.”
Megan Bigelow agrees.
“Walking, by its nature, is more informal for one simple reason: When you are talking, you aren’t looking at each other. This allows people to speak more freely and openly because it removes the stress of eye contact,” says Bigelow, who leads the technical customer service team at Jama Software. “It also allows for people to feel more at ease because they are outside of the office setting, in the open air.”
Having a meeting away from computers can help focus talk on strategic issues rather than tactical details.
“I think the benefit of not having devices distract you while you are in meetings outweighs the cost of not having access to them,” says Bigelow, who has 30-minute one-on-one meetings with everyone on her team every other week. It’s an opportunity to ask how an individual feels about the work and any concerns they have. “It allows you to candidly talk through any issues raised,” Bigelow says. “I find that asking for progress on specific items is better served for non-meeting time and/or reliance on tools such as JIRA or Trello.”
Lan, too, finds the benefits of a walking meeting outweigh any note-taking or app-access limitations.
“Because we're a machine learning company, our technology is meant to mimic human behavior, and being outdoors/getting a break is very human,” Lan says. A walking meeting can be a reminder that there’s more to building a product than just the code, she says.
Let’s meet outside
A lack of meeting space was the inspiration for some tech people to head outside for meetings.
“We originally started doing walking meetings because our growing company lacks enough conference rooms. But being able to go for a walk on a nice San Francisco day is hard to beat,” says Robert Armstrong, CEO of mobile design and development firm Appstem in San Francisco.
“The major downside is the ability to take notes,” Armstrong says. “We usually end up making notes on our mobile devices and sending follow up items when we get back in the office. You’re unable to reference any documents or anything on a computer, but that doesn’t cause too many issues. Overall it’s a great way to get out of the office, get some privacy, and some exercise while still being productive.”
Evan Huston also was motivated by a lack of conference room space.
"Being downtown, with limited real estate, it's difficult to find available conference rooms. Many of our one-on-ones are walking meetings around the downtown area,” says Huston, director of engineering at Austin-based SpareFoot, an online marketplace for storage space. “It's nice to get out of the work environment and tends to open people up a bit.”
Advocates of walking meetings suggest a few fundamental guidelines to avoid wasting time.
For starters, set an agenda before the walk. Carve out time to decide upon 1-3 discussion items, says Lior Koriat, CEO of cloud automation and orchestration company Quali in Santa Clara, Calif. “It’s a better time to talk strategy than tactics.”
Notify invitees in advance: No one wants to be surprised by a walking meeting when they’re expecting a seated meeting with the usual tech amenities.
Don’t over-invite participants; there’s a limit to how many people can comfortably participate in a walking meeting. “It’s challenging to meet with more than four people because of the simple logistics of how many people fit on a sidewalk and can be within earshot of one another,” Aktary says.
But before any of that – make sure the meeting is really necessary. Most aren’t, says Wes Higbee, president of consulting firm Full City Tech Co.
“Most meetings would be best canceled, and then if people are worried about their health they can take a walk on their own,” Higbee says. “Think about how many meetings don't have a material impact on your work. Those are the ones that can be cut, and then there's no need to multitask pointless busy work with fitness.”