Normalizing Remote Walking Meetings

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” 
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Frost-covered trees on a early pandemic walk
Mill Creek, Walla Walla, Washington

Walla Walla’s first Covid hospitalization arrives. I remember Sarah’s pager going off, a series of heavy conversations, and a sinking feeling.

She reports to the hospital early the next morning. I head to my office and grab my things before anyone gets in. Whatever’s about to happen, I’ll be riding it out at home.

This post describes how and why I integrated walking meetings into my remote work routine during the pandemic. It explains a few of my insights and why I plan to continue walking meetings after the pandemic ends.

Descending into Zoom hell

Officials announce the first hospitalized U.S. Covid patient just north of Seattle, Washington. I’m four hours away in Walla Walla—a small town in Washington's rural southeast corner. My partner and I moved here from Portland, Oregon a couple years earlier. We’re trying out small town life.

I’ve been working remotely from a subleased office on Main Street. She works at our local hospital. We have a little place near Whitman College and enjoy nightly walks around town with our two dogs.

Before the pandemic, remote work had been a joy. Nearly all of my work was via writing and phone calls. I had plenty of space to think, build, and connect in meaningful ways. I’d occasionally travel to Portland for meetings. Or I’d hop on Zoom calls when travel was impractical.

Then Covid hits. Everything changes.

Last day in the office
Walla Walla, Washington, one week before our first local Covid hospitalization

As the pandemic unfolds in Walla Walla, Zoom mania seeps into every nook of my existence. The rest of the world is joining the remote work experience—all at once. A hurried scramble to recreate the office via the internet.

Work calls, volunteer obligations, continuing education invade my kitchen, living room, dining room, and basement. Even our community gardening meetings go fully remote. The entire world switches to Zoom. Suddenly, everyone is very online. The habit-forming internet of 2020 becomes the primary tool for connection.

Fighting screen time with walks

Looking back through photos and notes in my phone, it’s clear that I responded to the early pandemic with walks. It was an all-out war against screen time. Walking paths were my escape.

My walking companion, Milo
Week 2 of Covid lockdown, Mill Creek at Walla Walla Community College

Even though I was working remotely and online before the pandemic, Covid dramatically changes my remote work experience. What used to be mostly long-form reading, thinking, and writing becomes an interruptive combination of pings and calendar invites for Zoom calls.

To mitigate my increased screen time and technology demands, I start walking a ton.

My route of choice becomes a 10-mile loop departing directly from my house, following a loop that traces a perimeter around Mill Creek and Bennington Lake. About 95% of my walking is on creekside paths that meander into the Blue Mountains. Sometimes I bring both dogs. Sometimes one. Or I walk alone.

Morning sun at Bennington Lake
Week 3 of Covid lockdown

My walks last about 2 ½- 3 hours, depending on how leisurely the dogs are feeling. In the pandemic’s early winter days, I depart before sunrise to get back home before the Zoom/Slack/Email onslaught commences.

I bring an insulated mug of coffee and a couple Nalgene bottles in a backpack. I alternate between silence, music (usually downtempo electronic music), audiobooks, and podcasts. I quickly blow through several audiobooks and an uncounted number of podcasts.

I use part of my walking time dreaming up daily screen time mitigation strategies. I plan pen-and-paper time, computer screen cutoff times, and breaks for movement, stretching, and meditation.

Iterating on walking meetings

Temperatures warm and winds calm. Sunny spring arrives in the Walla Walla valley. I steadily increase my walking regimen. Now I’m spending 4+ hours strolling.

Wheat fields in early spring
Week 5 of Covid at Bennington Lake

I’m not shy about canceling Zoom meetings or requesting audio meetings whenever I hit my limit. At times, I feel unable to focus or remain thoughtful amidst the constant interruptions. Thankfully, it feels like everyone understands. We’re all getting hammered with meetings, alerts, and interruptions.

“The mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day.”
— Charles Dickens

Eventually, as a test, I start weaving calls into my walks. The idea is simple: combine calls with walks so “work” isn’t synonymous with “at the computer.” I want to stay connected while keeping screen time down. I figure if I’m going to walk a ton, it doesn’t need to be lonely. I might as well optimize my time.

The walking meetings feel natural. I’ve always loved walking and talking. I regularly did walking (and biking) meetings in Portland. I’ve had similar habits in every other city I’ve lived in. Why not remote walking calls too?

Overcoming walking-meeting guilt

Initially, I struggle with some low-level guilt over my experiments with walking meetings. I feel like anything less than sedentary, camera-facing meetings will be perceived as “phoning it in.” I’m sure I’m cheating somehow. If I’m not there in front of the Zoom eye, I can’t possibly be giving it my all.

Next, I resort to intellectualizing. I can immediately tell walking meetings are positive and productive. But still, I need reassurance that I’m not imagining things. I search for something to back up my intuition, which is screaming: “meetings don’t need to be closely-controlled, heavily-documented, agenda-driven!” I need confirmation that it’s okay to just talk things through—not in front of a screen.

So I read a ton on the subject. Unsurprisingly, walking and talking is a well-trodden path. Throughout history, many of our greatest thinkers had walking-and-talking practices. The science is also clear: it’s good for you in a variety of ways. In addition to physical benefits, “[r]esearch has found that walking leads to increases in creative thinking, and anecdotal evidence suggests that walking meetings spur more productive, honest conversations.” Source

There’s also a rich history of walk-admiring thinkers.1 I think back to my time on the Philosophenweg in Heidelberg, a path that local university professors and philosophers used for walking, thinking, and talking while looking out from sloped bank of the Neckar River.

Some notable walking meeting fans

Thankfully, as I pitch more walking meetings, it’s clear my guilt is misplaced. The truth is that walking meetings are easy and almost everyone is down. Once I let go of my own insecurities about controlling the experience, the whole experience feels effortless and natural.

I become more confident in my pushes for walking meetings, openly pitching, “Cool if we do a walking call?” My thinking is that probably nobody wants to be sitting in front of the computer. If I can create some safety for others to enjoy the experience, then everyone wins. Even if I'm the only one who decides to walk, at least it's not a surprise to anyone.

Nearly every person is genuinely excited to get away from the screen. It begins to feel like Zoom meetings were just a habit we all picked up inadvertently. They are a path of least resistance, a lowest common denominator, easily slapped into a Calendar invite. Overcoming the inertia requires a little initiative and the courage to speak up.

Of course, there are some cases where notes, screen sharing, face-to-face, etc. are necessary. Human connection is important. And sometimes walking meetings are inappropriate or impossible. Not every meeting can happen on a walk.

In many cases though, walking meetings sans notes are perfectly appropriate. Meetings tend to be more focused, people prepare better, and the conversations feel more natural.

As a final test of my walking meeting prowess, in January 2021, I join On Deck’s No-Code Fellowship. I use Calendly to schedule meetings and connect with 100+ new friends worldwide. After an initial burst of video calls (I still like meeting new people and saying hello via video), I add walking meetings as an option on my Calendly. I am able to divert over 50% of meetings to walks.

Where walking meetings really shine

Brainstorming, talking through creative challenges, and iterating on ideas happens especially well on walking meetings. My theory is that stepping away from screens prevents obsessive note-taking and reduces screen-induced anxiety. Walking helps ideas come and go naturally. It’s easier to relax, listen, and stay present.

My walking meetings tend to feel more conversational, exploratory, and creativity-inclined than Zoom meetings. I can engage for longer without feeling burned out. And there’s the obvious benefit of increased physical activity.

1:1s are ideal candidates for walks because there’s less need for managing multiple participants. Small groups can also thrive in walking meetings with practice. One trick I found is having a well-scoped topic for the meeting. A subject that will benefit from thoughtful conversation without requiring lots of specific information immediately at hand. I discovered over time that there are more such conversations than most of our current work situations allow for.

Informational group meetings also shine on the go. What better place to take in training, strategy, and planning meetings than in the garden or at the park? If the team needs notes (and I argue they rarely do), it’s easy to assign a rotating scribe to distill discussions into artifacts and action items. This approach has the added benefit of allowing everyone to reflect on meetings through note review and commenting.

Aside from direct “work” tasks, I’ve also come to enjoy walking for many of my personal conversations. I did this pre-pandemic too but it’s definitely increased since then. Talks with family and friends now usually happen on a walk to the beach. I look forward to catch-up walks.

A new tool for walking meetings: Spot

In my pursuit of walking meeting nirvana, I recently started demoing a new tool called Spot.

The future of walking meetings: Spot
https://meetwithspot.com

I first heard about Spot’s founder, Greg Caplan, through a fitness newsletter in early 2021. His company recently raised $7 million from prominent investors, including Kleiner Perkins, to build and scale Spot. I personally appreciated that Greg is in Chicago, a phenomenal city for walks. I snagged a beta invite.

Spot makes it easy and obvious to schedule walking meetings through your existing calendaring system. Spot’s links help clarify that a meeting will be on-the-go. Spot also guides new users through an easy setup and onboarding process.

As Spot’s website explains, there’s “[n]o second-guessing if you have to turn your camera on or not during the meeting.” Spot sets clear expectations so everyone can enjoy movement and eyes-free communication without worrying about missing out. Spot creates a natural, shared connection around movement.

Regardless of whether Spot catches on, I love the idea of a dedicated tool for walking meetings.

Aren’t walking meetings just audio calls?

Yes, they are. You can do them via call, Zoom, or whatever you prefer. And if the context allows, I prefer a simple phone call. Still though, calling out walking meetings by name has a huge practical advantage: context.

What I love about tools like Spot is that they make remote walking calls a culturally accepted option for modern work environments. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. It’s more than just setting expectations for background noise and video off. By providing a dedicated link and software tool, Spot creates permission for everyone to get out and move.

Post-pandemic walking meetings

Fast forward to July 2021.

We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re vaccinated. The hospitals are no longer swelling with Covid patients. We can visit with people. I feel grateful.

So how am I feeling about walking meetings ~18 months later?

I’m optimistic. We’ve all experienced remote work. We know what being cooped up feels like. We’ve experienced screen fatigue in a meaningful way. And we all know we can do better.

On a human level, we’ve all felt the potential for remote connection. We know that obligatory office co-location is rarely necessary. We have a shared intuition for what remote asynchronous work can be. After a year of Zoom, we’re motivated to cut down on camera time. This is a great opportunity to cement healthy work habits.

Moving more meetings to walks feels like it has the potential to offset some harmful patterns in modern life. Rather than staring at screens and succumbing to habit-forming technology, we can repurpose our pocket-sized computers for moving while we think. And, unlike Aristotle, we’re not limited to walking and talking with people in our immediate geographic vicinity. We can walk and talk with anyone who has a decent cell signal.

I hope something in this post inspires you to walk more. If it did, I’d appreciate you letting me know.

1 One great book on famous walkers is the French bestseller A Philosophy of Walking.
Thanks to Nanya Sudhir, Dianna Klatt, David Burt, Frederik Gieschen, Dani Trusca, Alberto Arenaza, Sara Campbell, Lyle McKeany, Katherine Canniff, Rajat Mittal, Michael Shafer, and the community at Foster Writing for reviewing an early draft of this post.