John O'Donnell, chief executive officer of Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada, prefers not to sit any more than he has to. His desk is adjustable, so he can stand while working. Employees are encouraged to ramble away from their computers every so often. And, whenever possible, if the weather is good, Mr. O'Donnell takes his meetings outdoors.
These "walking meetings" have become second nature to the head office staff at Allstate in Canada, Mr. O'Donnell said in an interview.
A nearby college campus in Markham, Ont., has pathways and a lake that Allstate staff can walk around. A sidewalk route that includes a stop at Tim Horton's is another popular circuit, he said.
"It is healthy at times to get out of the typical [office] setting. Our minds sometimes work in different ways when we are outside the building. It can be more casual, it spurs creativity and I think that's good," Mr. O'Donnell said.
The Conference Board of Canada reported in a recent study that sedentary jobs can pose a significant health hazard. "Clinicians are starting to demonstrate, with some hard metrics, that sitting too much is a real cardiovascular risk. What you do about it is the big question," said Louis Thériault, vice-president of public policy at the Conference Board.
"Busy schedules, looming deadlines, the demands of today's workplace can make it challenging for employees to prioritize a healthy, active lifestyle," the Conference Board reported. So it is up to employers to create the conditions to encourage more physical activity on the job, keeping in mind that not everyone has the time or inclination to go for a hard run or hit the gym at lunch time. It's not necessary to "break a sweat" to derive health benefits from moderate physical activity throughout the day, Mr. Theriault said in an interview.
The concept of walking meetings is designed to appeal to employees who don't want to take time away from the job but are feeling logy after too many hours planted in an office chair.
The Conference Board report noted that a health research organization in Ottawa has adapted its Microsoft Outlook e-mail and contact management program so staff can book walking meetings based on the amount of time they need and the route they want to take.
"It actually doesn't cost anything in terms of time. You are going to have a brainstorming discussion, so do it outside in the sunshine, in the snow, on a walk or whatever," said Mark Tremblay, director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity (HALO) research group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.
Outlook invitations to the "walking meeting room" map out routes to accommodate meetings ranging from 15 minutes to an hour "and, of course, [unlike a standard office meeting room] they are never overbooked," Dr. Tremblay said.
"It doesn't work well when you have more than six or seven people because it starts to get awkward – you have to yell [to be heard]. But many, many meetings are less than six or seven people, so rather than holding up a boardroom, you free it up because you are outside in the walking meeting room."
In addition to the obvious health benefits, walking meetings minimize the risk of interruptions and contribute to a more collegial working atmosphere, George Washington University says in a guide on how to conduct a walking meeting. Set the agenda in advance, GWU advises, and "make sure everyone gets the memo about wearing comfortable shoes." If minutes are required, "designate someone to take notes or use a voice recorder."
Organizers can accommodate "the diversity of walking paces by splitting the group into slower and faster mini groups," suggests Feet First, a Washington State-based not-for-profit organization.
Mr. O'Donnell feels these walks and talks are most effective one-on-one.
But even when larger groups are gathered in more traditional conference rooms, employees at Allstate needn't feel confined to their chairs, he said.
"I have been in plenty of meetings where people will just stand up and start stretching or shuffling behind a chair. It has become commonplace.
"We also encourage people to have regular healthy snacks to maintain their energy during the day. If someone unwraps a granola bar and it makes crinkle noises, that's okay."
Some of this behaviour might be considered odd in less supportive environments, he concedes. And, while Allstate encourages employees to be more active, it should never be forced.
"My background many years back is in the military, and we certainly don't want to make that environment where we are having physical fitness tests and everything else. … It is meant to be optional and fun to the point where people want to engage," said Mr. O'Donnell, a former U.S. marine. At his wife's suggestion, he even serves cookies on occasion, alongside the healthy snacks.