Why we need more walking routes in and around the workplace

New research from Stanford University shows that walking can improve the quality of negotiations – and it’s just the latest in a line of academic studies explaining why we need to get up and walk about

The evidence for including opportunities to walk in workplaces, both indoors and outside, continues to grow. A new proof-of-concept study from Stanford University by Oppezzo, Neale, Gross, Prochaska, Schwartz, Aikens and Palaniappan has demonstrated how walking outside can help improve the quality of negotiated interactions, particularly among women.

The investigators conducted an experiment in which 160 volunteers were split into same-gender pairs and given a 30-minute exercise where they had to hammer out the details of a fictional job offer. Half of the candidate pairs talked while sitting across from each other in a room; the other half haggled while taking a walk outside.

The researchers were curious to learn if the well-known cognitive and psychological benefits of walking would lead to less competitive, more cooperative negotiations. Their findings were promising.

‘The walkers came away liking their negotiation partners more than the sitters did,’ report the researchers. ‘And there were distinct benefits for women who walked: they achieved more equitable results, as measured by points assigned to their final outcomes. They also reported fewer negative feelings about the negotiation exercise than women who stayed inside.’

Walking and creative thinking

The Stanford study builds on previously published academic studies which make a clear case for walking during the workday. Our cognitive performance is better, particularly our ability to remember things, when we are walking at a pace we determine, according to Schaeffer, Lovden, Wieckhorst and Lindenberger (2010). Salas, Minakata, and Kelemen (2011) determined that ‘individuals can gain a memory advantage from a 10-minute walk before studying’.

The links between walking and thinking more creatively are well established. The original work in this area was done by Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) who found that ‘walking boosts creative ideation [thought] in real time and shortly after’. The creativity lift was seen when people were walking inside or outside, on a treadmill or off. Oppezzo and Schwartz concluded that ‘walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.’ Also, ‘walking increased the tendency to talk, and people were especially loquacious when walking outside’.

Murali and Handel (2022) further report that ‘creativity, specifically divergent thinking, has been shown to benefit from unrestrained walking’. And Rominger and team (in press) ‘found that both single bouts of walking and walking regularly were associated with more original verbal ideas… the study findings suggest that the positive effects of physical activity on creativity transfer to everyday life contexts’.

Better relations

Webb and associates (2017) show that walking can help us get along better with other people, by elevating moods: ‘Walking together can facilitate both the intra- and interpersonal pathways to conflict resolution. Intrapersonally, walking supports various psychological mechanisms for reconciliation… Interpersonally, walking can allow partners to reap the cognitive, affective and behavioural advantages of synchronous movement, such as increased positive rapport, empathy and prosociality. Walking partners naturally adopt cooperative (as opposed to competitive) postural stances.’

How to facilitate walking

Making stairwells better places to be via art, flooring, windows to the outside, pleasant soundscapes and temperatures as well as convenient, central locations, can encourage people to go up or down stairs instead of taking an elevator.

The best-case scenario is stairs that are open, incorporated into the middle of a work area, not isolated in a far corner. Stenling and teammates (2019) examined the effects of stair-climbing intervals on subsequent cognitive performance and mood in healthy young adults. Participants felt more energetic, less tense and less tired following the stair climbing. The findings indicate that short bouts of stair climbing in a naturalistic setting can induce cognitive benefits for more challenging tasks.

‘A walking route inside the workplace should be lined with art and plants to make it more pleasant’

A walking route inside the workplace should feature a different sort of flooring to clearly mark it out and be lined with art, plants, and so on to make travelling it just a little more pleasant. If people will be talking as they’re walking, and hopefully at least sometimes they will, some sort of acoustic shielding needs to separate the walking route from work zones. There might also be a longer and a shorter route to commonly traveled locations, such as the cafeteria.

Although walking creates the mental conditions that our brains need for us to do our best work, some people will always need to take direct routes from A to B that involves less walking, and these need to be provided for them. That includes workers who broke their ankle skiing and those with longer term disabilities.

Read more of the latest research insights from Sally Augustin in Research Roundup, her regular column in the Innovation Zone here.

Research sources

Dave Gilson. 2023. ‘Talking a Walk Could be a Step Toward Better Negotiation.’ Press release, Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Supriya Murali and Barbara Handel. 2022. ‘Motor Restrictions Impair Divergent Thinking During Walking and During Walking and During Sitting.’ Psychological Research, vol. 86, pp. 2144-2157.

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz. 2014. ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.’ Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 1142-1152.

Christian Rominger, Andreas Fink, Bernhard Weber, Mathias Benedek, Corinna Perchtold-Stefan, and Adreas Schwerdtfeger. ‘Step-By-Step to More Creativity: The Number of Steps in Everyday Life is Related to Creative Ideation Performance.’ American Psychologist, in press.

Carlos Salas, Katsumi Minakata, and William Kelemen. 2011. ‘Walking Before Study Enhances Free Recall But Not Judgment-of-Learning Magnitude.’ Journal of Cognitive Psychology, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 507-513.

Sabine Schaeffer, Martin Lovden, Birgit Wieckhorst, and Ulman Lindenberger. 2010. ‘Cognitive Performance is Improved While Walking: Differences in Cognitive-Sensorimotor Couplings Between Children and Young Adults.’ European Journal of Developmental Psychology, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 371-389.

Andreas Stenling, Adam Moylan, Emily Fulton, and Liana Machado. 2019. ‘Effects of a Brief Stair-Climbing Intervention on Cognitive Performance and Mood States in Healthy Young Adults.’ Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10.

Christine Webb, Maya Rossignac-Milon, and E. Higgins. 2017. ‘Stepping Forward Together: Could Walking Facilitate Interpersonal Conflict Resolution?’ American Psychologist, vol. 72, no. 4, pp. 374-385.

Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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