Management by Walking
An Excerpt from The Open-Air Life by Linda Åkeson Mcgurk
Walks in nature and embracing friluftsliv—the Scandinavian art of year-round outdoor living—could be the key to happier, healthier workplaces.
Workplace meetings are legion in Sweden, a country where organizations are flat and consensus is prized. A friend of mine once complained that he had eleven meetings in one day, leaving little time for anything else. “And then we have meetings to plan more meetings!” he said, visibly exasperated at the thought of spending another day sitting around a table in a stuffy conference room, drinking bottomless cups of coffee.
Considering Swedes’ deeply embedded cultures of workplace meetings and friluftsliv, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that some employers have found a way to combine the two through “walk- and- talk meetings.” A walk- and- talk meeting is exactly what the name implies— a conversation while walking outside— and is typically used for less formal meetings and brainstorming sessions.
“You don’t have to sit in a conference room with technical equipment to have a conversation. Humans have met up and talked around the fire for hundreds of thousands of years. You don’t even need a fire; I think it’s just good to get away from the office environment and fill up with a different type of energy,” said Johan Ekroth, a human resource specialist who runs a recruitment company with his wife. “In my experience, most people appreciate not having to sit in a meeting room.”
He may be onto something. For one, walk- and- talk meetings counteract the negative effects of sitting, which 60 percent of Swedish employees do for four to eight hours every day, according to one study. When we walk, the blood flow in the brain increases, which turns on our creative juices. Simultaneously, our body increases the production of “feel good” hormones like dopamine and serotonin, making us feel happy and positive. Walking outside is also known to provide a healthy cocktail of reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, improving sleep, increasing insulin sensitivity, and boosting the immune system. All those physiological responses can be beneficial to your productivity and well- being at work.
Ekroth previously worked as head of communications and IT for the Swedish Outdoor Association, and during that time he did job interviews and performance reviews as well as other individual meetings while walking in the woods around Stockholm. A colleague liked to do job interviews in a canoe. When you work for an organization that has as its core mission to promote friluftsliv, bringing meetings to the outdoors is of course great branding. But for Ekroth it was about more than that.
“Nature is an outstanding meeting room. It’s more relaxed outside, and I think you get a better connection,” he said. “I think people are worried about the weather and the unpredictability of the situation, but that becomes a part of the experience as well. If it starts to rain, that can spark creativity— and more so than if you’d been in an anonymous conference room.”
Besides generating creativity, walking is known to improve our executive function, or our ability to organize and plan the day effectively. It changes the dynamics of formal workplace hierarchies, facilitates collaboration, and brings people closer. When you’re walking side by side you feel more equal, which creates a more relaxing environment and a safe space to share potential discontent or open up about conflicts in the workplace.
Petra Sabo, head of direct- to- consumer sales at Swedish outdoor brand Didriksons, said she does walk- and- talk meetings with the members of her team at least once a month. “I love it. I’ve noticed that some of our more introverted employees find it easier to talk when we’re walking side by side rather than sitting across from each other at a table.”
Walk-and-talk meetings lend themselves particularly well to getting to know people and for generating creative ideas but are less suitable for formal meetings and discussions of a more serious nature. Meetings that require a lot of documentation can also be trickier to pull off while walking, but this could change in the future, as dictation technology continues to improve.
“I also think it’s valid to question whether the documentation is really needed. It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that you have to have a PowerPoint presentation for everything. But isn’t it enough to bring results?” Ekroth asked rhetorically.
According to Anna Iwarsson, a business adviser who has written several books about the future of management, documenting walk- and- talk meetings is just a matter of habit. She has practiced walking meetings for over twenty years and typically uses them for performance reviews, but also when she feels stuck at something and needs a shot of creativity. Iwarsson usually makes some short notes on her smartphone or records a few sentences as a voice memo to support her memory.
For Ekroth, meetings in nature took on a new meaning when he became temporarily unemployed a few years back. While searching for his next gig, he turned to his LinkedIn network and invited people to have coffee with him in the outdoors. The meetups did not generate any jobs at the time, but Ekroth said that you never know what kind of hidden kinetic energy networking can lead to a few years down the road. And everybody who came out for the outdoor networking meetings had a good time.
“Going to a [cafe] in town is rarely as good as brewing your own coffee in nature. You put things away and get to know each other on a deeper level.”
Walk- and- talk meetings have become popular in recent years, and in 2019 they were one of the top tips listed by 844 Swedish executives when they were asked what they do to motivate their team. Sure, Christmas gifts, pay raises, and paid trips are all nice and appreciated, but motivating employees on a higher level is more about making sure they feel seen at work. As it turns out, walk- and- talk meetings do just that.
Should your employer still not be on board, try getting some coworkers to come on a lunchtime walk (lunchpromenad) with you instead. Any walk during the workday can improve enthusiasm, increase relaxation, and reduce nervousness at work, according to research. And if you happen to be walking in a natural area, the effect becomes even more pronounced.
How to Master the Walk- and- Talk Meeting
Try to pick a green space with as few distractions as possible.
Set a clear agenda for the meeting.
Bring a notepad for taking short notes or make brief voice recordings on your phone.
Gather together right after the walk to document what you have talked about, or send out some brief notes with concrete actions to follow up on.
If there are more than two or three people, split up in smaller groups to get the most out of the walking meeting.
From THE OPEN- AIR LIFE by Linda Åkeson McGurk, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Linda Åkeson McGurk