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Slowing Down to Speed Up

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What started as a grassroots effort among a few colleagues to meditate during the lunch hour has now grown into an officially supported 10 week long program at Intel.

Now in its third year, the Awake@Intel program imparts on participants concepts such as mindfulness, intention and relational intelligence. Many other companies are also deploying similar courses.

It may seem paradoxical that taking a moment to slow down and be mindful would be beneficial to environments where agility is paramount, but elite athletes such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter practiced mindfulness techniques to help them focus on the way to earning their championship titles.

Those same mindful practices are helping workers at Intel, many of whom are engineers, lower their stress levels, boost focus and increase productivity, say the program instructors. The benefits, besides for an individual's wellbeing, are far-reaching. Stress costs U.S. businesses upwards of $300 billion annually, according to the American Institute of Stress.

"The idea is to give people a set of fundamental skills that they can use at anytime, anywhere, to help them deal with stressful situations," said Lindsay VanDriel, a platform strategist in Intel's software and services group and a co-founder of Awake@Intel. "Instead of having their brilliance diluted across multiple projects all the time, they can bring all of their brilliance into laser-like focus, go deep and apply that into one project."

Intel is among a growing list of companies, such as Google, General Mills, Ford and LinkedIn, to offer classes on mindfulness. For health insurance company Aetna, the idea came from its CEO Mark Bertolini, an active practitioner of yoga and meditation. Aetna now offers a 10-week program to teach thousands of its employees mindfulness and yoga, and in 2012 saw a 7.3 percent reduction in medical claims, or $9 million in savings. Aetna also saw an additional 62 minutes of productivity per week for each worker, worth around $3,000 per worker per year.

Awakenings

Led by Intel employees Lindsay VanDriel and Qua Veda, a market research analyst in IT, the Awake@Intel program is now taught at Intel's campuses in Hillsboro, Ore., Folsom, Calif., and there are plans to expand it to offices in Chandler, Ariz., Santa Clara, Calif. and Bangalore, India by the end of the year. Intel locations in Costa Rica and Japan have also expressed interest in running Awake@Intel.

While mediation practices are an integral part of the course, the majority of each 90-minute Awake@Intel session involves participants journaling thoughts, discussing concepts, and sharing problem-solving techniques.

The results are measurable. According to Veda, in the early stages of planning the program, Intel management identified nine key areas to survey relating to feelings of stress, ability to focus, engagement in meetings, creativity and innovation, among others.

"We saw a positive 2-point shift on a 10-point scale on all indicators, and we've replicated that over the years," said Veda. "We have very consistent results even across different groups."

Focused Problem Solving

Anand Sharma, a software engineer who completed the Awake@Intel course in April 2015, found that practicing meditation has alleviated headaches and increased energy. In turn, he realizes the benefits while at work and detailed an instance where he and his team had a meeting to make a critical decision regarding an upcoming software release.

"The team was not sure about delivering a key component that was expected from us in next few weeks," said Sharma, noting that the team was already stretched thin and working on multiple tasks in parallel. On top of that, the 30 minutes scheduled for the meeting stretched to two hours. "At the end of two hours we had a solution which we could not have imagined. This was only possible with patience and empathy."

Those positive results have even found their way to skeptics who never previously practiced meditation and mindfulness. Brian Cockrell, an Intel software engineer who participated in Awake@Intel in 2013, went into the program "very skeptical," but discovered it "was very down to Earth and not at all new agey." The mindfulness concepts even helped Cockrell devise a solution to an engineering problem far more quickly than expected by filtering out distractions.

Nearly two years later, Cockrell says that even though he doesn't practice daily meditation, he still applies the concepts he learned from the class.

"The core concepts are still with me. I set an intention most days in order to organize my busy personal and work life," Cockrell said. "I shut off email and turn off instant messenger frequently so that I can concentrate. I am mindful about not constantly using my phone when I'm with family and friends so that I can be engaged with them."

More Mindful Managers

It's not only engineers who are finding new ways of working. Managers such as Matthew Bruce, an engineering manager in the IoT group, are finding that mindful practices are helping them become more effective in their leadership roles.

"It starts with your conversations with your employees and the way you relate to them," said Bruce. "You invest in a lot of people and you don't want them to burn out and go on to something else. If you're constantly focused on whether or not the person you're talking to has met expectations, then you've dehumanized the relationship."

Interest in mindfulness on the rise, according to data from the American Mindfulness Research Association. (The blue bar is for general publications on mindfulness; the red bar is medical publications on mindfulness.)

When asked whether or not there is anything wrong with the results-oriented culture at Intel, Bruce replied, "It's not broken on one level that says only results matter, but just because it's not broken doesn't mean it can't be optimized. As a manager your goal is for long term sustainable output."

Bea Rataj, a localization manager in IT, said that mindful and presence concepts helps her engage better in daily meetings. "My mind is clearer. I remember more about what was being said. I understand things better and can provide better input."

"I used to come home tired, grumpy, frazzled and wasn't much fun to be around. Now I come home just tired," Rataj continued. "More importantly, the quality of tired is that of having done a good day's work and feeling satisfied with it. I have felt more engaged and am actually looking forward to work the next day."

Awake Inside and Out

Besides offering the program at more Intel campuses, the Awake@Intel co-founders are looking to help specific groups both inside and outside the company. "There are about 2,000 veterans at Intel and I would like a special offering for them," VanDriel noted.

Graduates of Awake@Intel are also reaching outside of the company on their own personal time, to places such as high schools or working directly with at-risk youth groups, to share mindful concepts.

"It's an inspiring example of how employees can be empowered and engaged to make something great happen," said Veda.

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