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.

Brian Cockrell
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.

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