How to run less painful meetings: Add motion

Tired of sitting around an unproductive table? Here's advice on how to try standing or walking meetings, plus other tactics to get your team moving
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Feel like you're sitting too much at work? It can be especially painful during unproductive meetings.

“We live in a society that has literally extracted movement out of our lives. So somehow, all of us need to find ways to engineer movement back into our lives – including when we’re at work,” says Laura Putnam, CEO of San Francisco wellness consultancy Motion Infusion and author of Workplace Wellness That Works.

Motion is also medicine for the brain. “Movement brings more blood to the brain, which means more oxygen for our brain cells. More motion helps to increase the connections, or synapses, between brain cells. Perhaps most exciting, physical activity actually generates new brain cells,” says Putnam, who offers workshops to help leaders and managers being incorporating more motion into their meetings via standing, walking, or team-based stretching. “The upshot: When we move, we’re better problem-solvers.”

“Physical activity actually generates new brain cells. When we move, we’re better problem-solvers.”

Some businesses may have wellness programs or even walking challenges designed to get employees moving, but those go only so far. “Standing and walking meetings, along with incorporated stretch breaks, helps to move physical activity out of a standalone wellness program and into business as usual,” Putnam says.

Walking meetings can be particularly helpful for building camaraderie, breaking down formalities, and enhancing psychological safety. One Stanford study revealed that walking meetings can help to reduce an individual’s inhibitions and help to foster increased creativity.

[ Are you known as a leader with high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

However, IT leaders may be unsure about how to shift to standing or walking meetings, and incorporating more movement into organizational meetings may be met with resistance. Putnam offers seven tips based on her work with leaders and managers across industries.

1. Manage expectations and concerns

 “Mention the word ‘movement’ or ‘physical activity,’ and there are plenty of people who will freak out,” Putnam says. IT leaders can counter these concerns by giving people choices or by adding a qualifier like ‘if you are able’ to any invitation. “Every time I lead any kind of stretching activities, I always provide a range of options, from easier to more challenging,” says Putnam. “I also make sure that I begin by helping people feel safe participating. For example, I start off with seated exercises before moving into standing exercises.”

[ Read our related article: Stand-up meetings: 5 reasons to kiss traditional meetings goodbye. ]

2. Start small

Keep your first standing or walking meeting short, especially if this is new for your team. IT leaders could even begin to move in this direction by simply giving people permission to stand during a meeting. Putnam offers this wording: “I won’t be offended if you stand during the meeting. In fact, I wholeheartedly support it, because standing is a great way to stay focused and engaged.”

3. Make it easy to move

“Try utilizing props, like flip charts and sticky notes, to give people a reason to move,” Putnam advises. “Clipboards work great for those who want to stand but also want to take notes.”

4. Consider guided stretching breaks

Healthstat CEO Crockett Dale has a practice of beginning every meeting by leading the group in five squats. If that sounds ambitious, Putnam says, “Start with small movements. For example, I often start off with stretches for fingers and wrists.”

5. Match the movement to the meeting

 If you need to take notes or analyze spreadsheets, a walking meeting may not work, but a standing one will. “Standing meetings are great to use if you have a specific problem that you are trying to solve,” says Putnam. “For example, the team within the Obama Administration responsible for rolling out the Affordable Care Act used the standing meeting as a tool to keep meetings on track.”

“Standing meetings are great to use if you have a specific problem that you are trying to solve.”

Walking meetings are great for one-on-ones, especially when the focus is on relationship-building. If a meeting will run longer by design (for training, say) Putnam suggests setting up the room to encourage people to get out of their seats. She sets up a sitting table and a standing table for training sessions and directs groups to each based on the activity at hand. “A brainstorming activity or collage activity work well at the standing tables, whereas the lecture portions work better at the sitting tables,” she notes.

6. Use prompts

 For a walking meeting – especially if it's happening within the context of a longer meeting ­– prompts will help spark discussion.

7. Make meetings in motion the norm

 “It helps to have senior leaders as well as managers on board,” Putnam says. “This is exactly what happened at LinkedIn. CEO Jeff Weiner not only endorsed the idea of walking meetings, he put them into practice on a regular basis.”

[ No one likes unproductive meetings. Read our related article: How to run meetings that hurt less. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.