This article is part of CMO.com’s February series about mobile. Click here for more.
Digital transformation is all but demanded for corporate survival. And as exciting as it can be for those making it happen, frequent change, increased demands, and always-connected expectations can take a human toll.
The quantitative proof is accumulating as well. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, an overwhelming majority of employees (85%) reported being either not engaged or actively disengaged at work in—which Gallup estimates costs companies $7 trillion a year in lost productivity.
Meanwhile, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that one out of five highly engaged employees said their burnout levels were also high—and researchers uncovered even higher turnover rates among this group than disengaged workers.
“We’re constantly bombarded by information from our devices, but when you constantly react to every buzz and bing, you end up in a state of overwhelm,” said Peter Bostelmann, director of SAP’s Global Mindfulness Practice, in an interview with CMO.com. “It’s the reality of the global economy, and we have to find ways to cope with it.”
One decidedly analog solution is becoming increasingly popular: the practice of mindfulness and, often in association with it, meditation.
Mindfulness typically involves pausing in some fashion to notice thoughts and sensations. This can help individuals increase their awareness of how both external and internal triggers incite immediate, almost automatic responses in their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It gives employees the tools that will make them less reactive, more resilient, and ultimately more innovative and productive.
Mindfulness practices help individuals sustain energy and focus, added Suzanne Dawson, chief customer officer at YogaWorks. “Pausing and breathing before reacting tends to diffuse tension, invite more constructive solutions, and, in general, produce better outcomes.”
As benefits both to employees and the bottom line have begun to surface, interest has grown. More than one in five companies (22%) had mindfulness training programs in place, according to a 2016 study by National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments, with another 21% planning to invest in mindfulness training in 2017.
However, just setting up a meditation room isn’t enough to reap the benefits of mindfulness in the workplace, said Dr. Leah Weiss who teaches compassionate leadership at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “Mindfulness and compassion have to be integrated into culture at the leadership level and then spread throughout a company,” she told CMO.com.
Prakash Venkataraman, who provides executive and team coaching within LinkedIn, focuses much of his work on bringing mindfulness of self and others to the forefront of employees’ minds. In today’s dynamic work environment, he told CMO.com, it’s not unusual for employees to go about their daily tasks on autopilot.
“The challenge with this is that doing so can leave you focused on the wrong priorities,” Venkataraman said. “When this lack of consciousness happens, it creates a gap in relationships that ultimately leads to a lower probability of you achieving the mission of the company with the highest integrity.”
LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner, a strong advocate for mindfulness, has been instrumental in its introduction and integration within the company. In 2014, the company hired Fred Kofman, author of “Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values,” to help its leadership and organizational development group create a scalable corporate program based on the principals introduced in the book.
“The focus of the course is to help people be more mindful of themselves, and of others, in order to be more effective at communicating and collaborating a shared goal,” Venkataraman said.
LinkedIn has since complemented that formal training with opportunities for employees to practice mindfulness, including guided meditations, videos highlighting mindful moments of employees around the globe, and a 30-day mindfulness challenge. More than 1,500 employees have taken the conscious business course, and demand for the class is high. Venkataraman and Kofman also work with company leaders to operationalize mindfulness concepts with their teams.
How Mindfulness Helps
LinkedIn employees participating in mindfulness training report increased clarity, better decision-making, and a reduction in emotional variance. In short, Venkataraman said, they feel better.
Laurie J. Cameron, certified mindfulness teacher and author of the book “The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy from Morning to Evening,” works with Fortune 100 companies as part of Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute and her own company, PurposeBlue. She begins with neuroscience education sessions and then helps clients practice training their minds in ways that help them thrive in the uncertain, complex, always-on workplace.
“Mindfulness is the outcome of building skills and strengthening the mind and body in the right place,” said Cameron, whose clients include Deloitte’s global marketing organization. “By repeatedly training the mind to focus attention and sustain it, we strengthen the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with attention, planning, and goal setting. We also train in deepening self-awareness, self-management, communication, motivation, and empathy.”
For marketing and design audiences, Cameron frames the strategies in design-thinking terms–learning, prototyping, testing, adapting, and integrating these tools at work. She recently spent the day with 35 user interface and artificial intelligence designers at a major bank.
“They are brilliantly creative, they love their work, yet they have to navigate the daily challenge of working on multiple teams, balancing deadlines for different clients and stakeholders, and finding ways to optimize their ‘deep work’ time,” Cameron told CMO.com.
The group explored the principles and strategies of mindfulness to learn how to train the mind, how to focus, and how to use intention. “Employees at all levels can learn to increase their capacity through meditation and also learn small ways to integrate mindfulness strategies and habits into their daily routine,” Cameron said.
Mindfulness As Performance Enhancer
Many companies are drawn to mindfulness and meditation as a potential stress reliever for themselves and their employees. But an even bigger benefit is performance enhancement, according to their practitioners and proponents in the business world.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges in introducing an initiative is overcoming the misconception that the goal is to clear the mind, said Jona Genova, a meditation teacher who has helped to develop programs for Equinox Fitness, YMarketing digital agency, investment firm PAAMCO, and Hyundai Capital. The goal is not necessarily to remove stress, which can often fuel performance, but reframe it.
“Meditation improves our ability to concentrate as well as our mental agility,” Genova told CMO.com. “The shifts that employees and team leaders are most surprised and impacted by are when people start caring for each other and supporting each other. Group flow happens, and the results are powerful.”
National Vision Administrators (NVA) CEO David Karlin introduced a mindfulness initiative during a time of significant company growth that demanded increased collaboration. NVA offered two tracks: mindfulness training and individual coaching.
“We were primarily after a way to unlock the potential of our people and help them work more effectively together,” Karlin told CMO.com. “We wanted to generate increased awareness of the marketplace and our own work environment, and to stimulate teamwork and creativity.”
Working with mindfulness business consultancy Free Form Minds, they began the program within the management and sales teams before rolling it out to the rest of the company. The work began with educating participants on mindfulness and the evidence of its benefits, then proceeded with full- and half-day meetings and one-on-one sessions.
The results were clear, beginning with the leadership coalescing around a new, comprehensive mission for the company. “This was something that had eluded us for many years,” Karlin said. “We saw more listening, empathy, and understanding, which helped us get things done more easily.”
Salespeople sharpened their listening skills and tackled tasks they would normally avoid, he added. “Our employees report increased ability to concentrate and improved time management abilities, which helps them to regularly meet and surpass their goals and objectives,” Karlin said.
Mindfulness At Scale
Some of the most successful corporate mindfulness programs were not instituted from the top-down but rather grew from the bottom up. In 2008, Adobe program manager Scott Unterberg started a meditation group within the Flash player team, meeting every Thursday for 15 minutes. (Note: Adobe is CMO.com’s parent company.) Over time the group expanded to include employees from other areas of the company. Then, in response to a company call for innovation ideas, Unterberg suggested the idea of an enterprisewide meditation initiative and launched a four-week pilot called Project Breathe in 2013.
Today, employees in global offices from Basel to Bangalore participate in the program. Those interested in going deeper can take three-month advanced classes. Unterberg, now director of program management for Adobe Creative Cloud, continues to lead the program, having enlisted part-time teachers from among Adobe staff. That includes Matthew Purdon, a product director with Adobe Livefyre, who has been meditating for two decades.
“I am interested in bringing more conscious awareness to the business world,” says Purdon, who received his initial meditation training from a Zen Buddhist monk. “By meditating, I contact and operate from a deeper part of myself that enables me to stay focused and balanced. This is very needed when there is constant change.”
The mindfulness program at SAP followed a similar path. SAP’s Bostelmann was working as an industrial engineer at the company when he began to exploring mindfulness in his private life a decade ago. He soon saw results at work, where he was better able to the ups and downs of managing multimillion-dollar software implementations.
“I became better on focusing on was what most important, and I could stay more even-keeled,” said Bostelmann, a 19-year veteran of the German software maker, in an interview with CMO.com. Initially, he was a self-described “closet meditator,” but in 2012, when he was working in Silicon Valley and hearing more about early corporate mindfulness programs, he began to look for an executive sponsor to help him introduce a mindfulness initiative at SAP.
In 2013, with the help of Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, Bostelmann launched a mindfulness pilot at SAP’s Palo Alto campus, somewhat unsure it would resonate. Four-and-a-half years later, 6,000 employees have participated, with a wait list of 5,000 people for 170 classes available in 40 locations.
“It’s one of the most successful programs we have at SAP, in term of both qualitative and quantitative feedback,” Bostelmann told CMO.com. “One thing I hear a lot from people is that they are personally interested in mindfulness, but they aren’t sure if their company is ready. But, oftentimes, the company is more ready than they think.”
The solution that mindfulness offers—to put it in its simplest terms, to pause and reflect—is counterintuitive, but it works. “It’s something you have to practice, but it enables you to build new pathways in the brain,” Bostelmann added. “The strength lies in learning out to manage your own reaction and relation to outside events.”
Before training, four weeks after, and six months later, Bostelmann and his team had 650 participants rate themselves in the areas of focus, creativity, perceived level of meaning and satisfaction in work, overall joy and well-being, and levels of stress. They found significant shifts within a month and even greater improvement after six months.
They also had SAP data analysts look at certain HR data, comparing the results of mindfulness participants to a control group of employees comparable in location, gender, and age. They found that those receiving the training had higher scores in the areas of employee engagement and leadership trust and lower rates of absenteeism.
SAP says its investment in mindfulness training has thus far had a return of 200%. “It’s become not only one of our most popular programs but also one of the most impactful,” Bostelmann said. “It’s boosting the bottom line.”