Friday Focus: A walk and talk, my fave

June 25, 2021

Tori Tragis

Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.
Chancellor Dan White. UAF photo by JR Ancheta.

— by Dan White, chancellor

Most of my meetings are in front of a Zoom screen, sitting in my chair. It is the same chair and the same desk that followed me from my days at UAF to statewide and back to UAF. Literally. Some meetings, happily, are now in person — but I’m still in my chair in front of my desk with piles of papers that need attention. Sticky notes, letters, cards, packets and binders. Papers about opportunities or challenges, some with short fuses and some for which a bit more time is afforded. Eventually, however, the fuse burns short on all to-dos.

At my desk, between me and the Zoom screen, are many distractions, added to the paper. At this moment between me and my screen I have a water bottle, coffee cup, face masks, two pencils, two pens, and some Burt’s Bees hand lotion for dry winter days (even though those are past us for a while). Each and every thing between me and my Zoom screen is a potential distraction. In fact, in the “window” behind the Zoom panel lurks the greatest distraction of all, my email. Queuing there are messages with subject lines prefaced with URGENT, or READ THIS. The email wizard seems diabolical as it commandeers the Zoom screen with a pop-up every time a new email comes in. In fact, I got midway through writing this Friday Focus and jumped on my email to respond to a sort-of urgent request. Well, it actually wasn’t urgent at all, it was just on my mind as something that needed to get done.

I am reminded of a story I recently heard on KUAC about the subconscious impacts of our phones, whether we are using them or not. Two groups of students were given standardized tests. In one cohort, the students were asked to put their phone on their desks, face down. The other cohort left their phones in their bags. To no one’s great surprise, those with the phone on their desks did not score as well. Not because they used the phone or could even see the screen. But because it lay there, harboring impatient texts or Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter or other messages. The distraction cost cycles, took attention, even if subconscious, and cost the students their test scores.

One of the First Alaskans dialogue agreements (PDF) is to be present, engaged. How do we do that when we are so distracted?

Therein lies the walking meeting. If I can walk and talk with someone I will. It is not all that frequent because most meetings need slides or as-built drawings, spreadsheets full of numbers or more than two people. Walking meetings are not a group activity for sure. But on that occasion when it is a meeting with one person, and discussion is the task at hand, it is perfect. Even if it is cold or raining or both. Well, unless it is raining hard. Lightning too. That’s a deal breaker.

But a walk is a time when two people can talk through an issue unencumbered by all the distractions on the desk, on the phone, or queued up in the long list of lurking email.

I acknowledge that a walk and talk sounds impossible for many jobs at UAF. Nearly all of our jobs have a primary locus of operation. They do not involve walking around. Or do they? I would posit that if you look at your schedule and consider your week’s activities there is an opportunity for a walk and talk hiding somewhere. 

When you meet with your supervisor or a colleague about your next shift or an opportunity to improve a process or approach, would it lend itself to a walk and talk? If you’re not interested in walking, maybe it is a meeting in a different environment, away from your work area or desk. 

Sometimes my walk-and-talk meetings are just a 15-minute walk from my office to the fire station, the Patty Center, or wherever the next sit-down meeting occurs. And for those willing to take that 15 minutes, I accept the gift with gratitude. Thank you to those who have walked and talked with me while we hurried across campus to the next thing.

It is not for everyone, but it is an opportunity to talk, see other people, see the work of your fellow UAF employees. And students. What a gift that is, whether the people you see are student ambassadors giving a tour, faculty mentoring a student, a researcher mulling a proposal idea, or grounds crews beautifying our campus. Whether you are in Fairbanks, Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Nome, Galena, Tok, Fort Yukon, Toolik, Kasitsna Bay, Seward, Kodiak or aboard the Sikuliaq. A walk and talk every once in a while is good for the soul. It’s good for the heart too. It awakens me to the diversity of the university. Each of us free to express ourselves as we wish in this safe space. Each individual making their way. It also awakens me to the effort that each of you contribute to this great place.

Thanks to KF for suggesting this topic.

Have a great weekend, and thanks for choosing UAF.

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week. On occasion, a guest writer is invited to contribute a column.