Social awkwardness scuppers standing meetings

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Social awkwardness scuppers standing meetings

Standing during meetings could help keep office workers healthy (the jury is very much out on this), but new research suggests it's hard to resist keeping our seats when standing up breaks social rules.

Office workers make up half the UK working population and spend approximately two-thirds of their working days seated. Research suggests that people who sit for long periods have an increased risk of disease, while some studies have linked regular standing to a lower risk of premature death. Standing up in meetings could be one way to reduce workplace sitting.

What the researchers say: “Sedentary office work is an urgent public health issue,” said the lead researcher. “For some employers, such as software developers, standing meetings are commonplace. We need to get to the point where standing is the new normal for workers who would rather not be sat down.”

The researchers explored the experience of office workers who stood in meetings while their colleagues were seated in order to identify barriers to getting people on their feet. Twenty-five participants were asked to stand in three separate meetings and interviewed afterwards. They were instructed to stand for however long they deemed appropriate.

“We found that standing in meetings is a social minefield. Our participants often felt awkward about standing—they felt more visible to others, and worried that other attendees would think they were “attention seekers,” said the researchers.

Participants reported feeling 'disconcerted', “awkward” or “stupid,” and felt like they were breaking unwritten rules. Many felt it particularly inappropriate not to sit in formal meetings or those addressing sensitive topics. In the face of this social pressure many participants stood at the side or back of the room, which some felt limited their engagement in the meeting, or simply chose to sit.

Not all the experiences were bad, however. Many participants said that standing made them more engaged in the meeting and motivated them to minimize meeting length. Indeed, previous research suggests that standing meetings tend to be shorter in duration than seated meetings.

When participants were chairing the meeting, they felt that standing gave them more confidence, power, and authority over the meeting. However, this effect could backfire and cause psychological discomfort when participants feared their standing would be interpreted as an inappropriate assertion of power, particularly with senior colleagues.

“Ours is the first study to find out how people actually experience standing up in meetings,” said the co-author “Initial experiences of new behaviors can determine whether people will keep going. While standing is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it's about creating activity permissive cultures at work where people have the opportunity to move around more.”
The researchers suggest a number of ways employers could encourage people to stand in meetings by minimizing the unease people feel from “breaking the rules.” For instance, hosts might suggest that attendees must stand when speaking in contribution to a group discussion, and organizations can provide appropriate meeting spaces with high tables and stools.

So, what? I spent a year living with hunter-gatherers and not once did I see a standing meeting. Meetings were always held in a sitting position. Of course, H-Gs have far more exercise than office workers but since sitting and socializing is a very human thing to do and standing and socializing is not then perhaps we should seek to reorganize our lives rather than our meetings!

A couple of years ago the BBC put out a nice piece on walking meetings which is well worth the read.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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