Walk and talk: why walking meetings make business sense

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel during a walking meeting in Germany

They’re not only good for your health but can bring better ideas, solutions and conversations. Here’s why walking meetings are the choice of a growing number of leaders…

In 2013, Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Sitting is the smoking of our generation”. The author was Nilofer Merchant, a chief executive and strategist who had previously worked for a host of tech giants including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Symantec and Nokia.

She revealed a series of depressing statistics that made the link between a sedentary, office-based lifestyle and the higher chances of obesity, heart disease and cancer. As a result, she decided to change at least one coffee meeting to a walking one instead. For Merchant it was a ‘2-for-1’ deal, combining work and exercise at the same time.

She was not alone. Steve Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama have been the most famous recent advocates of what is also known as the ‘walk and talk’ – although fans of the US political drama The West Wing, with which the term is closely associated, might recall that Potus’s staff actually called it a ‘pedeconference’.

A walking meeting is not only a good way to get exercise – it can also provide a stimulus for creative thinking. “The electrical signals in the brain are roughly working at three times the capacity that they would be if they were sat behind a PC monitor,” says Phil Jones, managing director of Manchester-based office technology supplier Brother UK.

In fact, a study carried out in 2014 by Stanford University in California found a person’s creative output increased on average by 60 per cent when walking.

Jones says he was inspired to try walking meetings after reading about it in Steve Jobs: The exclusive biography. The Apple guru insisted his first meeting with author Walter Isaacson to discuss writing the book should take place over a walk. Isaacson later said: “That seemed a bit odd. I didn’t yet know that taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation.”

Mark Zuckerberg has been a recent advocate of walking meetingsJones recalls that he was also becoming increasingly interested in psychology and neuroscience. “It’s an area that fascinates me – how you perform to the very highest level, how you stay in great physical and mental shape. And I started to learn about how blood flows around the brain and that if you want to be more creative you to have get up and start walking or do some exercise,” he says.

He is in no doubt that walking meetings can improve your performance. “What you get is better ideas, better solutions and a better overall quality of conversation. So it’s a perfect way to solve problems or come up with new ideas.

“Other people I know are now organising ‘netwalking’ meetings. They will head up to the Pennines, disappear for a number of hours, and say, ‘We’re leaving at 9am and we’re back at 2pm.’ It’s a slightly different concept but draws upon the same idea of having some headspace away from the grind to have grander thoughts.”

Jones views walking meetings as another step in the evolution of the workplace and says other MDs should follow suit:

“What we want is people to be able to deliver their best work and if you begin to constrain how that work is delivered – say, it has to be behind a desk or in a meeting room – then you might be missing a trick.

“I’d love to see more businesses doing it and often the barrier lies with the more senior people within an organisation who might be constrained by the old ways of thinking.

“The old styles and methodologies behind how a business should be run are all changing. Smart businesses are the ones who are reviewing everything in order to be relevant for their markets, their customers and to attract the best new talent.” 

Phil Jones of Brother believes in walking meetings

 Phil Jones, MD of Brother UK and fellow of the IoD, explains how to get the best from a walking meeting…

• Take a route you know and set aside a specific amount of time for the meeting, as if you were booking one within your business.

• I tend to say, ‘Put your phone in your pocket, put your trainers on, we’re going out to walk.’ It means you don’t have those other distractions.

• Walking meetings only work well for me when there is just one other person. It means you have highly focused, good-quality conversation.

Phil Jones is a fellow of IoD North West

Watch Nilofer Merchant’s TED talk on walking meetings here

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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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