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Walk While You Talk: The Meeting Goes Mobile

Who likes meetings? Anybody?

Didn't think so.

Now what if the meeting were held on the go instead of in a stuffy conference room?

If that sounds a little better, then try a walking meeting. You and your colleagues can talk shop and get some exercise.

Popularized by tech magnates Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (and some underworld figures long before them), walking meetings are touted as a way to improve health while also strengthening work relationships.

Just about anybody can make these mobile meetings work, says Nilofer Merchant, author of the book 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. Merchant recently wrote a blog post about her own experience with walking meetings for the Harvard Business Review, and she'll be giving a TED talk on the topic next month.

Overweight and stressed from the 20 meetings she had scheduled every week, Merchant looked for an alternative. She has now replaced four meetings a week — those traditionally done over lunch or coffee — with one-on-one walking meetings.

"One thing I've noticed is how equalizing it is to be side by side, as if facing a problem together," Merchant says. "Hierarchy and work stuff largely goes out the door when you're wearing sneakers and sweating together. And of course, creativity has gone up for me and my colleagues by being exposed to nature."

Walking meetings may be an easy sell in Silicon Valley, where Merchant works, But getting them to go mainstream elsewhere might not be easy.

"Certainly the weather will matter," says Keith Murnighan, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill, where the Friday weather forecast called for a high temperature of 30 degrees and a wind chill of 10 degrees.

Also, quantitative fields and those in charge of sensitive information might have trouble making the transition, he says. "I see [the usefulness of walking meetings] much more in situations where the solution has been reached, but you're finding ways to implement that solution," he says.

Though walking meetings aren't yet commonplace, Murnighan says that a lot of groups have successfully made the transition from sitting meetings to standing meetings. "The beautiful thing about standing meetings is that they are shorter ... and you get it done more efficiently," he says. "That's a small structural change that influences people in a really positive way."

Even the seemingly small change from sitting to standing can make a difference, says Dr. Casey Chosewood, coordinator of the Total Worker Health program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Because physical activity is not natural for some people, it's important to find as many opportunities as we can to make healthy behaviors part of the routine of our day," he says.

Chosewood says that if you can add a regular walking meeting to your schedule, it will contribute to the two and a half hours of moderate physical activity each of us should be getting every week.

Talking walkers might be distracted, so to stay safe from traffic, he suggests planning walking meetings in parks or on trails. In the winter, he says that offices can even designate indoor walking paths that weave through hallways, stairwells and cafeterias.

However, with any form of exercise, the key to success is consistency. "One walking meeting is probably not all that helpful" for your health, Chosewood says. "But if people find a pattern where they are increasingly active throughout the course of their day, that really does make a health difference."

In the end, meeting walker Merchant says that business shouldn't have to make the decision between health and the bottom line — the two go hand in hand. "Things that seem in opposition really aren't," she says. "There is a way to solve for both that actually improves the outcomes of all. But it will take us all trying to do new things, and experimenting with new ideas."

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