Workplace 'mindfulness' as coping mechanism for AI disruption

Two tech titans investing in the AI tools that automate jobs are also sinking money into workplace mindfulness programs aimed at helping employees become better at being human.

One side effect CIOs face in the adoption of artificial intelligence is the impact on existing jobs. And not just the tech jobs in their own departments, but any role that can be fully or partially automated by AI -- in other words, many enterprise jobs. Indeed, just about the only jobs that will not see automation will be ones that depend heavily upon human social intelligence skills. Despite advances in AI conversational interfaces, this technology is not likely to catch up anytime soon with the human ability to understand and apply context when, for example, cultivating customers, motivating employee teams or brainstorming.

"As artificial intelligence and predictive analytics become more mainstream, the workplace demands that we move past simply being smart to being wise and skillful," said Michael Carroll, COO of the Global Coaching Alliance and author of Fearless at Work. He noted that research out of Oxford suggests 47% of job roles will be replaced by AI in the next 20 years.

Michael Carroll, COO of the Global Coaching AllianceMichael Carroll

Carroll was among the presenters at the Mindful Workplace Summit in Silicon Valley earlier this month, a two-day event on workplace mindfulness programs that attracted a who's who of the corporate elite -- from Amazon, Facebook and Google to Disney and UPS. They were there to explore mindfulness, the Buddhist meditation practice used to calm the mind that, in recent years, has been co-opted by corporate management to increase employee well-being and -- this part is critical to its popularity -- protect the bottom line.

One of the major themes of the workplace mindfulness event was the impact of disruptive technologies -- AI in particular - on employees and what to do about it. Google and SAP are among companies that have latched on to workplace mindfulness programs to help employees hone skills that will be augmented by AI tools and adapt to new job roles as AI replaces many tasks.

Psychological safety

Bill Duane, CEO at Bill Duane Inc. and a board member for Search Inside Yourself Leadership InitiativeBill Duane

Bill Duane, who helped grow workplace mindfulness training at Google, said the search engine giant's interest in offering the program was tied to the rise of disruptive technologies and their impact on how employee teams perform. Internal Google research found psychological safety was the most important factor in allowing teams to innovate in the face of massive disruption.

Duane, now retired from Google, was a lead engineer at the company when he participated in a small internally run workplace mindfulness training program. He found his job performance was so radically transformed for the better by the training that he switched roles to lead the development of a mindfulness training program at Google, which was eventually spun out as the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Initiative. The program, launched in 2012, has been widely adopted by other enterprises, including SAP.

This is an illustration of what SAP employees don't do in their mindfulness meetings.
Here's what SAP employees don't do in their mindfulness program.

'Attention training,' not mindfulness

Peter Bostelmann, director, SAP's global mindfulness practicePeter Bostelmann

Peter Bostelmann, director of SAP's global mindfulness practice, helped launch a workplace mindfulness training program at SAP in 2012 that today has been delivered to over 6,500 employees, with a waiting list of over 5,500.

One of the keys to making the program work at SAP, according to Bostelmann, was to avoid using the term mindfulness and language associated with therapy and religion.

Often, the perception among high-performing executives is the practice of mindfulness will actually distract employees from delivering solid business results, Bostelmann said. Typical of this attitude, he recalled, was a senior executive he was coaching prior to the launch of the company's formal mindfulness program.

It is not spiritual, smoking incense or sitting cross-legged. It is proven by neuroscience and scientific evidence.
Peter Bostelmanndirector of SAP's global mindfulness practice

When he suggested she give mindfulness a try, she responded, "Are you crazy? I don't do hippie bullsh---." A month later, when he suggested she might benefit from "attention training," she dove right in and made significant gains in her leadership ability. 

"This was a huge aha," Bostelmann said. "You need to look for the appropriate language." He has found the adoption of workplace mindfulness programs lies in keeping it simple and secular.

"It is not spiritual, smoking incense or sitting cross-legged. It is proven by neuroscience and scientific evidence," he said. Indeed, at SAP, no one sits cross-legged. But mindfulness meetings are often more effective when participants observe a moment of silence before the agenda is covered. He said this makes it easier for the group to focus its attention on the business at hand, so the difficult conversations typical of mindfulness meetings can be navigated more efficiently.

SAP employees in a mindfulness meeting
These are among the 6,500 SAP employees who have participated in the software company's mindfulness program.

Accentuate career development, leadership

When addressing the executive suite, Bostelmann advised people to focus on leadership and employee performance, citing scientific research showing a correlation between mindfulness and the social intelligence skills useful for leadership effectiveness. Mindfulness is also correlated with emotional intelligence skills, which can help management and staff navigate the uncertainty of a rapid change in the workplace disturbed by the adoption of artificial intelligence.

"You need to focus on enhancing potential, rather than curing deficiencies," Bostelmann said. "You need to show it [mindfulness] does not make you weak and allows you to play at the top of your game."

Although workplace mindfulness training has shown benefit for reducing the impacts of stress, a focus on stress reduction can scare away employees with a desire to improve performance. Many companies label mindfulness training as a health offering, which can limit adoption and enthusiasm. Bostelmann found an approach to accentuating the performance benefits embodied by someone like tennis star Novak Djokovic, a mindfulness devotee, attracts more interest from top performers who don't suffer from health problems.

Bostelmann said he sees workplace mindfulness training as a megatrend that companies will need to adopt to keep up with the faster rate of change in the business environment. "I don't think the question is do we want to do this," he said. "The only question is do we want to do this now or later when others have done it and we want to catch up."

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