@ Mindful Workplaces

Barry Boyce reports on top tech companies Google, Facebook, Twitter and eBay, whose management see value in fostering employees' well-being. More on this at Wisdom 2.0 in Feb.

Changing the world is a tall order, so most people start with their immediate surroundings. In the tech world—where work and play and life are so tightly intermingled—the obvious place to start is the workplace.

The best-known program in high tech for promoting wisdom practices is Google’s Search Inside Yourself (Read Google Searches here on Mindful.org), which was spearheaded by Chade-Meng Tan. Meng, as he is known, is already a veteran spokesperson for the Wisdom 2.0 movement. His core belief is that if you can reach people at their workplace, you can change how they are, and ultimately change the world. It’s becoming a kind of article of faith for the Wisdom 2.0 crowd. For digg.com founder Kevin Rose, it includes things as simple as providing people at work with high quality loose tea, so they have to “at least interrupt their momentum long enough to properly make a good cup of tea,” which they may then take the time to enjoy rather than simply gulp down.

Human resources departments at major technology companies are committed to providing access to practices that not only help their employees deal with stress, but to be more curious and strategic about how they go about their jobs. “We are very interested in the long-term well-being of the people we’ve invested in, particularly the managers,” says Stuart Crabb, head of learning at Facebook. “We want them to be role models for being present. The education system rewards people for being supersmart, but it doesn’t really develop wisdom. That’s sorely lacking.” Crabb notes that the “continuous stream of stimuli” that is the daily reality for tech workers, not to say the population at large, is a dangerous drug. “It looks like it’s very powerful and enabling but it also has the possibility of permanently derailing someone.”

Over the past year, Facebook has been adding about one hundred employees a month. Twitter has more than doubled its workforce. In this kind of growth environment, says Crabb, “Everyone needs to know the difference between sprinting and pausing. It’s very hard to talk about work–life balance to the generation of people who make up our workforce. It’s a big blur for them. That’s how it is for our founder. It doesn’t resonate if you try to tell them that they’re running a marathon, not a sprint, because at this rate they’ll be sprinting for a while. What we can teach them is the value of the pause. They have to break up their sprint into sprints.”

Facebook leaders don’t dictate how long an employee’s work sprint should be, or their corresponding pause, or when and how it should happen. They know employees are the best judges of what they need. “People who end the year without having taken a vacation are not heroes here,” Crabb says. “If you take time to figure out what the pause looks like for you and you take it, you will come back more refreshed and ready for the next sprint. And there will be one. If you don’t take the time to pause, you’re going to burn out and we’re going to lose you before we’ve got the best of who you are.”

Rich Fernandez, head of learning and organizational development at eBay, sees mindfulness practice as the best way for people to recognize the value of pausing and regulating themselves so they can make the best decisions. He talks about it as a form of “positive disruption,” because it interrupts “our default mechanism of doing more, more, more. We think there’s a linear relationship between time spent working and results, but so often the time away, the stop to rest, the long cup of tea, following our breath, replenishes us and brings insight. That’s what the neuroscience is telling us too. Yet our paradigms for leadership usually reinforce the linear approach—it’s about there and then, where you’re going, rather than how you are being. We are a values-based company, and our first value is to keep it human. When we get away from that, we need to positively disrupt the paradigm.”

Fernandez has been pleasantly surprised by how workers, when given a chance, take to having a real pause, and the company supports that. “When we do mindfulness talks, we pull employees away from the line for an hour and a half at a time. I saw 250 employees at an internet company sitting still for a talk for almost ninety minutes and then doing ten minutes of mindfulness practice. No one got up and left.”

Michelle Gale is a mindfulness practitioner and coach who works full-time in Twitter’s leadership and development department. Gale says her department’s goal is “having wisdom practices be the underpinning of employee work life, so everyone feels they are growing personally and professionally. The Twitters, Facebooks, Googles, and eBays of the world are run by very soulful people whose underlying intention is to have a workplace that fosters well-being. People tend to take care of each other.”

Gale says she has found that “synchronizing mind and body” is one of the most helpful practices. “When I was young, I lived a life that was very ‘embodied.’ I danced, I played sports, I climbed trees and rode horses. But somewhere along the line, I lost that connection with my body,” she says, echoing the recollections of many others. In the tech world, she says, “there is very little opportunity to get out of our heads and into our bodies, to notice the intelligence and connection to something bigger that exists within our bodies. They constantly offer us brilliant information and we are just too busy to notice it. And yet, it’s the very thing we need.”

Gale has been exposed to various methods for developing “somatic intelligence,” but she has been most taken by the approach taught by Wendy Palmer, founder of Conscious Embodiment. Palmer has practiced aikido for forty years, and the principles at its core form the basis for the body–mind practices she teaches. “The goal of aikido is to be able to protect the attacker as well as yourself,” Palmer says, and when you extend that principle into how you deal with conflict and pressure, “it can put your body in a position that’s conducive to a different kind of chemistry than high doses of stress hormones provide.”

These practices extend mindfulness into the high-pressure situations Gale so often faces at work, where mindfulness might normally go right out the window. “Before I enter a potentially stressful meeting, before a difficult conversation, before a coaching session with a manager, when I encounter someone visibly upset,” Gale says, “noticing how embodied I am and reconnecting on the spot has been such a big help to me. I see developing this kind of bodily intelligence as something that can make a big difference within Twitter and in the tech field altogether.

"So many people can benefit: product managers who need to manage multiple projects and have information charging at them from all over the company; managers who have employees who need them fully present but their minds are on a million other things; engineers who get interrupted during very deep coding sessions and need to get back to that space as quickly as possible; high-level executives who need to see the big picture and need to make space to foster innovation rather than control. The ability to synchronize our mind with our body supports all of these common daily challenges. We can always ask how embodied we are in any given moment.”


Interested in more? Read The Digital World Connects and Mindfulness and Innovation.

Also see Mindful.org's news coverage of the upcoming 2012 Wisdom 2.0 conference, which will take place on February 23-26: Wisdom 2.0 plans underway.

Photo of Michelle Gale © Flickr.com/Mari Smith