Banish Boring Meetings With This Simple Trick

06/19/2014 09:34 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2014
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If you want to spice things up in the board room, try this prank: hide all the chairs.

No, seriously. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri found that if teams of people stood while they were working together on a project, they were likely to be more engaged and creative together than teams who sat at the table. The people who worked while standing were also more likely to be collaborative and less likely to be territorial about their own ideas.

Sounds like a decent trade off for 30 minutes of standing -- especially for people who have to work in groups, or offices that may have defensive or territorial people (nudge, nudge).

"You can have great performance in a typical sitting down meeting, provided people are engaged in the process of building on one another's ideas," said Andrew Knight, the lead researcher and an assistant professor of organizational behavior at WUSTL. "It's just more likely to happen when people are in these non-sedentary meetings."

The study was published recently in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Knight's finding echoes other studies that have found walking boosts creativity and standing desks might make workers more productive, but it's unique because it examines how a group, not an individual, would be affected by standing versus sitting.

Researchers gathered 214 undergrad students of both genders and told them to split up into 54 teams of two to five people. The participants were then told to make a 30-second recruitment video for the university, and that their project would be evaluated based on creativity. But participants weren't told they were also being evaluated on how well they collaborated with each other, or how territorial they were about their own ideas.

The teams were sent to work on their video for 30 minutes in a conference room with a white board, two notepads on easels, markers and a rectangular table. The only difference? One group walked into a conference room without chairs at the table, while the control teams used a conference room with five chairs around the table.

Knight and the other researchers had each participant wear a sensor to measure how "activated" and engaged he or she felt. The sensor worked by monitoring the sympathetic nervous system for small bursts of moisture coming out of specific sweat glands. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of activating a person's "fight or flight" response, and the more moisture the sensor recorded, the more engaged a person was.

Participants also completed post-activity survey in which participants shared their impressions of how territorial other people in their group became about individual ideas. Additionally, two sets of research assistants either watched the teams work and scored how collaborative they were or evaluated the creativity, polish and overall quality of the final product.

Knight found that, on average, research assistants judged the standing teams to be more collaborative, and the surveys from standing groups showed that they were less territorial than the sitting groups. Standing groups' final videos were also deemed more creative than the sitting teams.

Of course, there are caveats to Knight's findings. For one, the meetings only lasted about 30 minutes. Secondly, the participants only met one time to finish one project -- as opposed to a typical office setting that might involve the same group of people meeting regularly to collaborate on many projects.

"Would we find the same thing week after week, or would people get habituated to the standing meeting?" Knight wondered. "If they came into the same space every day, would they stand in the same spot of the room? Would they start to become territorial?"

"That's something that could happen, but we just don't know from this study," concluded Knight. He hopes to explore how standing affects meetings of varied lengths and repeated meetings in future research.

Seth Kaplan, an associate professor of industrial organizational psychology at George Mason University, praised Knight's study for demonstrating that the standing effect does indeed exist for groups. The next step, Kaplan said, is replicating it in a real business organization -- but that's easier said than done.

"One of the advantages of lab studies is that it's unlikely a business organization would let you put sensors on people," said Kaplan to HuffPost. "It's just not practical -- business organizations typically won't allow researchers to do these studies, generally. I wish they would."

Until a researcher does replicate the study at a business, there are other tested methods companies can deploy to improve creativity and collaboration among their teams, said Kaplan. Generally, for groups to be successful, there has to be a leader, a shared "mental model" (which means everyone is united on things like tasks, roles and priorities) and a safe space for people to offer ideas and comment on other people's ideas.

That said, aside from being a good way to kickstart some individual inspiration, standing for a period during the day is just plain good for you: For sedentary workers, using a standing desk during the business day has been shown to reduce neck and back pain, lift the mood and improve blood circulation. On the flip side, prolonged sitting has been associated with high blood pressure, certain cancers and early death.

Another boardroom booster? The knowledge that "brainstorms," or group discussions intended to produce ideas, aren't very effective. A better way to produce creative results, said Kaplan, is to let people come up with their own ideas in isolation and then come together to share and comment on each other's work.

"That would be the ideal standard," for future research, said Kaplan. "Do people in standing meetings actually perform as well as or better than the teams where people first generated ideas on their own and then came together?"

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