Tech companies find their inner Zen

Companies like Intel and Google are helping workers meditate to innovate

A software engineer walks down a hallway at Intel, not thinking about the emails he needs to send or that he has a meeting later in the day about a new project.

Instead, he's focusing his thoughts on his breathing and how the light feels as it comes through the windows in the hallway. His cellphone isn't in his pocket. It's back on his desk.

Software engineer Brian Cockrell says a course he took on mindfulness at Intel has helped improve his focus at work. (Photo: Intel)

When he meets with colleagues to work on a critical software problem, he has pushed away any distractions, his mind is clear and still, and he's focused solely on the problem in front of him.

That's the way it feels for Brian Cockrell, a software engineer in the business client group at Intel. He's one of the chip maker's 1,000 to 1,500 employees who have taken part in free mindfulness courses the company has offered for the past year and a half. In the class, participants are guided through meditation techniques and breathing exercises. They also discuss stress reduction and the potential of performing at a higher level when the mind grows still and focused.

"I was kind of skeptical before. I'm an engineer and very data-driven by nature," said Cockrell, who was one of the first at Intel to take the company's eight-week course called Awake@Intel. "But the pace of work has picked up lately and you've got IMs, cellphones, emails and all this data. I thought I would give this a shot."

After taking the initial class and a follow-up program, Cockrell not only credits mindfulness, or the practice of restful alertness, for changing the way he interacts with his family, but said it was the basis for a major step forward on Intel vPro, a set of PC hardware features he was working on.

"We were trying to get a two-stage boot to work wirelessly," he explained. "We said we'd do mindful engineering for a couple of hours. We turned off cellphones, IM and Outlook. Over a couple of mindfulness periods, we nailed it. It was a breakthrough."

Cockrell added that his group would have solved the problem over the course of a couple of months but never as quickly as it did by using mindfulness techniques.

"I was amazed at how quickly we solved it," he said. "It was a real eye-opener."

Intel is one of a growing list of companies that offer employees courses on meditation, relaxation and mindfulness. For high-tech powerhouses like Intel and Google, where scientists and engineers are focused on goals like developing algorithms, circuits and data, meditation is becoming a new fuel behind their work.

Breathing exercises and meditation are replacing energy drinks and vats of coffee as employees are pushed to innovate more and faster, and get ahead of their competitors. It's increasingly less cool to be a great multitasker or to continually check email and texts while in a meeting or working on a project.

A calm mind, is the new in thing.

Corporate perks like free gourmet food, car wash services and shuttles to take employees to work have been expanded to include meditation pods and tranquility gardens.

For instance, Zappos.com, the popular online shoe and clothing store, offers its employees free on-site yoga, meditation and destress-and-stretch classes.

Microblogging service Twitter offers employees, for a fee, a weekly 30-minute guided meditation class followed by a 60-minute yoga class. A small group of Twitter employees have set up a daily, self-guided meditation session on their own.

"I think the demographic at technology companies is actually more receptive to this. Folks who work in technology companies are more persuaded by something that's evidence- or science-based," said Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, who has used MRI machines to study the changes meditation makes to the brain.

Davidson also noted that meditation and mindfulness aren't just good for employees. They're also good for the companies offering the courses.

" Stress plays such an enormously important role in exacerbating certain kinds of illnesses, [training in meditation and mindfulness] might help the business by reducing absenteeism and improving workers' health," he said. "There's no scientific proof that it could decrease healthcare utilization, but there's data showing it can decrease inflammatory markers, stress hormones and improve immune function -- all of which contribute to better health."

There's a growing push for companies to offer mindfulness classes to not only improve productivity and creativity but to try to keep employees from burning out under the stress of balancing their work and home lives.

The annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which will be held in San Francisco in February, focuses on helping people combine technology with a mindful life. The list of speakers for the conference includes representatives from such tech companies as Zappos, Instagram, Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Bill Duane is Google's senior manager for Well Being and Sustainable High Performance Development Programs.

The idea of using meditation as a way to create a better life and to build more innovative technology is spreading.

Bill Duane, who has gone from being an engineering manager at Google to the company's senior manager for Well Being and Sustainable High Performance Development Programs, is a testament to that.

Google offers a meditation garden, individual meditation pods and quiet areas around its Mountain View, Calif., campus to help employees calm their minds and sharpen their focus.

"At Google, there's a real need for this because we're constantly setting our goals beyond what is feasible or reasonable," Duane said. "I don't want to work for a place that's not trying to change the world. And this is how we outfit ourselves for that trek."

All of the mindfulness and meditation going on at Google can largely be traced back to Chade-Meng Tan. Google's employee No. 107, Tan worked as an engineer at the company before spearheading its mindfulness program, creating a motivational course and then writing the associated book Search Inside Yourself.

A meditation room at Google offers employees a place to recharge themselves while they're at work. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld)

While Tan may be Google's symbolic Zen master, Duane stepped in to broaden the operation to emotionally, and even spiritually, nourish the company's hard-driven employees. As Duane describes it, Tan was the founder and now Duane himself has become the CEO of Google's mindfulness project.

Google, which has become a leader in incorporating mindfulness into the workplace, generally offers about a dozen mindfulness courses at a time.

And it's not as though the classes -- with titles such as "Managing your Energy," "Neural Self-Hacking" and "Meditation 101" -- are attracting only a handful of attendees. Many of them typically have waiting lists of 200 to 300 people.

For Duane, there's a reason that meditation is catching on so quickly at tech companies.

It's all about the science.

"I heard meditation was good for you and my response was, 'Whatever, hippie,'" Duane said. "I put it in the same box as homeopathy and crystals and auras. As someone deeply in love with science, I just thought it wasn't part of my world."

But then life -- a fast-paced job and a dying father -- began to take its toll on him.

"There's a certain point where it just catches up with you," he explained. "I tried the bourbon-and-cheeseburger method, but that only goes so far.... I started to learn about the neuroscience of emotion. The notion that what I was feeling wasn't random or broken but these responses of anxiety and worry were rational responses when you look at it from the context of our evolutionary background."

Simply put, humans are descendants of nervous monkeys. Our fight-or-flight response hasn't changed even though we're working in cubicles instead of fighting off tigers.

"To understand the functioning of emotion, it made it safe for me as an engineer, as a scientist, to believe it's possible to change these functions," Duane said. "Mindfulness is a way to hack this mechanism."

Qua Veda, a research analyst at Intel. (Photo: Intel)

Qua Veda, a research analyst at Intel, had similar ideas and began what has become a grass-roots push to bring mindfulness to the company's workforce.

"A few years ago, people took multitasking to be a great virtue," Veda said. "But it's about finding that quiet, centered place within so you're functioning at a much higher level of performance.... It's not just about stress reduction but having a capacity for insight and awareness, and engaging on a whole new level."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said it makes sense for companies, especially tech companies, to embrace meditation.

"Most technology companies will invest in things that help them get the most productivity out of their workers," Moorhead said. "Whether it's on-campus living, restaurants or meditation, the company wants to get more work out of their employees. Given the extensive hours and pressure this relatively younger workforce is under, free meditation classes don't surprise me."

This article, " Tech Companies Find Their Inner Zen," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter, at @sgaudin, and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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