Walking meetings can stretch the body and the mind

Biotech company Regeneron has created an on-site nature trail at its Limerick base to encourage walking meetings and healthy breaks

Walking meetings became a feature of working from home during the pandemic when getting away from the desk, while not skipping a beat in terms of productivity, proved to be good for the body, the mind and for business.

Limerick-based biotechnology company Regeneron has taken things a step further by creating a walking trail adjacent to the company’s production facility at Raheen to encourage employees to walk and talk. And it’s not just any old walking trail. It’s part of a 1.2 hectare historic site that once formed part of the grounds of the 19th century Roche Castle.

When Regeneron acquired the site in 2018, the castle and its surroundings were in a sad state. The company began a programme of preservation and restoration and turned a section of the grounds into a woodland walk for employees while also setting up bee, bat and bird boxes and creating a wildflower meadow to encourage biodiversity and add to the tranquil surroundings.

Since the site was officially opened last month, open-air meetings on the woodland trail and in seated areas created for the purpose have become a regular feature of life at the company, while the space is also proving popular during lunch breaks and for team social gatherings.

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The initiative is part of a bigger corporate strategy at Regeneron, which is committed to enhancing suburban ecosystems on company-owned lands while also involving employees in ecology workshops, tracking wildlife at the sites and volunteering for local environmental projects. Regeneron employs more than 10,000 people in North America and Europe and has similar initiatives at other facilities, including a nature trail at its New York office. The company has been in Ireland since 2014 and employs 1,400 people here.

“We’re on the edge of a motorway and in part of an old 1970s style industrial estate, so having this facility right on our doorstep in this setting is unique and a huge asset,” says Ivor Downey, executive director of HR at Regeneron.

“There has been a steady stream of people going in and out of the area since it opened, and having this available for people very much fits with our approach to looking after employees’ health and wellness. It’s also a lovely social space for people and with the recent fantastic weather, it’s been a great location for team barbecues and picnics. We also put up a fully equipped small marquee where people could go to have meetings somewhere different.”

Walking meetings were a novelty in the early days of the lockdown. But as hybrid and remote options have become the norm for many employees, walk-and-talk meetings look like they are here to stay.

“The evidence suggests that people definitely feel better when they come back from a walk, even if the weather hasn’t been good,” says physiotherapist and ergonomics expert Brian Crinion, who is clinical director of ergonomics at Pivot Health.

Crinion is a fan of both walking meetings and getting up and moving during the working day. For example, pacing while taking a phone call. He says walking meetings generally work best if they are of short duration, as not everyone wants to or is able to walk for an hour. “Shorter meetings also help to speed up the meeting’s objectives, as people have a definitive and understandable timeframe to work within,” he says.

What continues to concern Crinion about working from home is that people are remaining seated and static, usually in front of a screen, for too long at a time.

“For many, there is no more moving about to converse with colleagues or getting up to go to the printer. This means leaving the desk needs to be a much more active exercise for many of us,” he says. “Long periods of sitting are never advisable, and sitting for eight hours on a kitchen chair is a lot different for the body than sitting for the same amount of time in an office chair.”

Crinion adds that enough time has now passed for people to have moved beyond just getting by with whatever equipment was available to them when the lockdown began. In particular, he mentions working on desks that are too small, with the space further compromised by drawers underneath. This was often down to the fact that people simply didn’t have the floorspace to work from home, but what worked as a short-term expedient is not good for the body in the longer term, Crinion says.

In addition to providing its employees with somewhere to take a walk on the wild side, Regeneron also operates a programme called Everyday Ergonomics which is designed to ensure that people work in a comfortable environment. Recognising that we all need to move more during our working day, the company has incorporated a stretch programme into all on-site training and encourages people to integrate stretching into their daily routine.

“Taking regular breaks to stretch major muscle groups can help reduce muscle fatigue, injury, muscular tension and stiffness, while having the woodland area now means people can easily get out for exercise,” Ivor Downey says.

“Along with completing work station assessments for all administrative roles, we also continuously assess production activities to ensure that tasks are designed to the fit the person in line with standard ergo principles. In 2021, we completed approximately 1,500 ergonomic assessments – remote and on-site – along with specific assessments for production and support activities.”