Last reviewed 2 June 2021
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that an increasing number of meetings have been held outdoors. Laura King considers how to continue the trend and get the most from an outdoor meeting.
Outdoor meetings and walk-and-talk meetings are nothing new. Aristotle was famous for working while walking, and walking meetings have also been championed by modern-day business people such as Steve Jobs. However, perhaps due to the uncertainty of the British weather and the expectation of what a meeting should look like, outdoor meetings have not historically taken off in the UK.
As with many things, Covid-19 has turned our previous notions of “normal” on their head. Meeting others outdoors is now widely recognised as an effective way to mitigate against the risk of viral transmission, and so it is likely that as workplaces reopen, our previous reluctance for outdoor meetings might also shift.
This article explores some additional benefits of being outside, as well as considerations for holding productive meetings al fresco.
Health benefits of being outdoors
Even taking Covid-19 out of the equation, the health and productivity benefits of outdoor meetings are significant. For example, when it comes to walking:
Stanford University researchers found that walking indoors or outdoors improved participants’ abilities to think creatively by around 60%
a study from the University of Michigan found that short-term memory and cognitive function is improved by a 20-minute walk in nature
research found that employees who took a 30-minute walk at lunchtime demonstrated improved enthusiasm and reduced nervousness at work.
There is also very compelling evidence demonstrating the benefits of simply getting outside. For instance:
a series of studies found that being outside in nature for just 20 minutes makes people feel more energised and alive, regardless of whether any exercise is done
a 2019 study from the University of Michigan found that for people who live in urban areas, 20-30 minutes in a natural environment lowers the stress hormone cortisol
a survey of 2000 workers reported that 62% found it helpful to step outside to clear their heads.
Barriers to outdoor meetings
So, if being outdoors has acknowledged health benefits, why is it not incorporated into day-to-day office routines? Some insights as to why were provided by interviews of 16 members of staff from the Eindhoven University of Technology who used WorkWalk — a pre-defined 1.8km route that was designed to facilitate walking meetings. It is booked like a traditional meeting room, takes around 25 minutes, and has designated meeting points outside of buildings.
The researchers asked participants in the study about the barriers to using the facility. Some of the responses included:
being reluctant to ask someone to a walking meeting who was senior to them
not knowing if the other person would be keen to attend a walking meeting
a perception that walking meetings were more time consuming and required additional preparation
inflexibility of the route for longer/shorter meetings and difficulty note-taking.
Positive feedback included many of the benefits already cited about being outdoors. For example, participants felt more energised afterwards and were more relaxed and engaged during the meeting. They also reported being able to have better, more productive conversations.
Key considerations for walking meetings
Consider the type of meeting: Often-quoted research suggests that walking meetings are better for activities that involve brainstorming or creative thinking. They are less well-suited to building consensus or more serious topics. Furthermore, if the meeting requires the use of a laptop or other types of technology, then a walking meeting is not the best option.
Consider the number of people: Evidence from the WorkWalk study suggests that walking meetings are best suited to two or three participants.
Tell people in advance: The weather is not always predictable, and office shoes are not always the most comfortable. Letting your colleagues know in advance that you are planning a walking meeting gives them a chance to bring comfortable footwear, as well as suitable outerwear.
Be considerate: Consider the pace of the walk and any concerns people might have. Walk at the pace of the slowest person, and be prepared to stop.
Have a back-up plan: Maybe the weather is truly awful, or your colleague wants to opt out. Have a few alternative options in case plans need to change.
Be organised: As with any meeting, walking meetings require preparation. Circulate the agenda and any materials before the meeting so that people can prepare. Follow up any actions immediately afterwards. Note taking can be done while out-and-about using a voice recorder on a mobile phone, or alternatively in a small notebook.
Plan your route: Evidence indicates that having a destination but undefined route is better than idle wandering. Avoid busy roads (which make it harder to hear, as well as being more hazardous) and try to incorporate as many nature-related benefits of being outside as possible. Scope the approximate route and destination out beforehand so that you know roughly how long it should take, and whether it would be appropriate for the people or person you are inviting out.
Key considerations for outdoor meetings
Keep the meeting short: Standing or sitting for any length of time can get chilly. If a longer meeting is planned or the weather is cold, let people know in advance so that they can wear appropriate clothing, and consider breaking up the meeting to get a hot drink.
Keep others in mind: As with walking meetings, be considerate to others. If someone looks like they are struggling with the heat/cold, then check they are okay and bring the meeting to a close.
Have back-up options: If it is very cold or wet then holding a meeting outside might not be appropriate. In such cases, consider other options or whether a video meeting would be better.
Note taking: This can be done using a clipboard if the meeting is standing.
Facilitating outdoor meetings
As the Eindhoven University of Technology survey found, employees might not always feel that an outdoors meeting is appropriate. There are a number of ways in which organisations can change the culture of meetings, encouraging more meetings outside.
Ask senior managers to initiate outdoor and walking meetings — this sends the signal that these meetings are accepted and an appropriate option.
Designate some walking routes — pick a range of options from between 15 to 60 minutes.
Use signage to indicate walking meeting points and routes.
Incorporate walking meetings and outdoor meeting venues as an option in meeting room booking systems.
If there is an outdoor area that could be used for a meeting space, consider how it could be weather-proofed (eg providing shade from sun or rain, or heat in the winter), provide power sockets, WiFi, and other furniture (seating, tables and an outdoor white board, for example).
Provide guidance on what mitigation measures are required for outdoor meetings, eg maintaining distance and not sharing equipment.
If outdoor meetings are set to become a staple, think about providing staff with the appropriate clothing, eg a sunhat, umbrella and warm coat.
When looking at the return to the workplace, give thought to how to incorporate more outdoor meetings. This could include:
creating outdoor meeting spaces
publishing timed walking routes with designated meeting points
formalising the concept by asking senior managers to initiate outdoor meetings, incorporating any outdoor spaces into any booking system, and providing guidance on how to hold a Covid-19 safe meeting outdoors.