my boss wants to do walking meetings and I can’t keep up with her pace — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

My grandboss (my manager’s manager) is on a “wellness journey” (her words) and has suggested doing skip level 1:1s as walking meetings instead of in her office.

On the one hand, I love the idea, because I am trying to avoid spending time in small spaces with unmasked colleagues because I don’t want to get Covid again. On the other hand, when we actually had a walking meeting, my grandboss was power walking! Her pace was faster than I wanted to go while conversing.

In the moment, I decided to go at the speed I wanted to go at, to avoid sounding out-of-breath. So we ended up walking around the track at my speed, but my boss was a foot in front of me the whole time.

For the record, my walking speed is not “tortoise.” When I’m walking downtown, I regularly have to weave around slower walkers. But for a skip level meeting, I want to “work while walking,” not “exercise while working.”

I fear that, if I raise the issue, it will make my boss think, “Wow, not only is she fatter than me, but she’s not even on a wellness journey like I am! What a lazy slob.”

So: on a scale of “strolling so slowly that I can sip from a thermos without breaking my stride” to “I’m contending for the Olympic speed walking team,” what’s the right pace for a walking meeting? And if my colleague isn’t picking up on my speed preference, should I go at her speed, go at my speed and pretend I haven’t noticed she wants to go faster, talk about it, or avoid walking meetings?

The right speed for a walking meeting is the speed at which the slowest person is comfortable and can talk easily.

That’s because the meeting itself needs to be the most important thing, not the exercise. If a faster person can’t bear to slow down, then walking meetings don’t work well for them. Staying a foot in front of a colleague the whole time is rude (and implies that exercise takes priority over the meeting content or, you know, general politeness).

That means that anyone participating in a walking meeting needs to be highly attuned to what speed the other person is comfortable with.

They also need to be attuned to whether the other person really wants to do a walking meeting or not. Walking meetings can be great when both people enthusiastically agree to them! Some people love them. But mutual enthusiasm is key because not everyone does — and many people aren’t physically able to do them comfortably or at all. That’s especially important for managers because the power dynamic means that some people may be uncomfortable asking for a slower pace or declining altogether.

To be clear, most managers who suggest walking meetings will be perfectly fine with someone saying they prefer to sit down in an office. But employees won’t always be sure about that, so managers need to make it really obvious that no one will be judged for declining. (For example, it’s easier to say no to a walking meeting when it’s phrased as “Any interest in walking during our meeting? If not, that’s completely fine — I know you might need to have notes or a screen in front of you instead.” And it’s even easier when you’re not put on the spot at all and instead your boss sends a general FYI to your team like, “If anyone ever wants to do a walking meeting for our 1:1, I’m up for it — zero pressure but let me know if you ever do.”)

As for what to do … do you want to do more walking meetings? If you’d rather not do them at all, you could say to your grandboss, “I’ve realized I can’t focus as well while we’re walking and I like to take notes so I’d rather meet in your office if we can.” If you’d enjoy them if only she’d slow down, you could say, “I’m up for walking but I can’t go at your speed and still talk comfortably. If slower is an option, I’m in.” (And then if she doesn’t slow down anyway, decide if you’re still up for doing them if she’s always going to be ahead of you or whether you’d rather return to in-office meetings.) But if you don’t really care if she’s a foot ahead of you the whole time, then proceed as you are; she can adjust her speed or stop proposing walks together if she minds.

I would not assume that she will judge you for not walking at her speed or for not wanting to walk at all, unless you see evidence of that. If she’s pushy about it or you hear her make dismissive remarks about other people not wanting to walk, that’s a problem — and in that case it’s worth having a discreet conversation with either your own boss or HR (probably HR, unless your boss is excellent at this stuff) because penalizing employees for physical ability can easily become a legal liability for your company.

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