12. Mindfulness at Work
Hosted by Raúl Barroso, with guest Francis Lacoste.
You might believe that meditation techniques are best practiced in silence and solitude. However, there are ways to bring that sense of calm into the office, too. Google launched a mindfulness program to improve the mental wellbeing of its employees. Francis Lacoste talks about how he adapted that program for Heroku's distributed workforce, and how mindfulness can also be a shared experience with your colleagues.
Francis Lacoste, a Director of Engineering at Heroku, is a longtime meditation practitioner. In 2015, he attended public seminar on mindfulness by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which was co-founded by a former Google engineer. The workshop emphasized mindfulness as a benefit to businesses by framing the mental health benefits as something that could improve worker productivity. Enlightened by this discovery, he worked to bring the lessons over to Heroku.
Heroku's remote culture introduced some challenges to the original structure of the program. Participants are connected through Zoom meetings, rather than being seated in a room together. As well, the workshop take place over the course of a week, rather than two very long days. Herokai have responded very positively to the lessons, and some have earnestly applied the practices at home and with their families.
The actual practice itself is very secularized, even though it draws on Buddhist traditions. Francis Lacoste believes that culturally, we are not given the appropriate tooling to deal with conflicts and stress, and finds mindfulness to be a fantastic aid to those problems.
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Raul: Hello. What you're about to start listening to is conversations that happen between Francis Lacoste and myself about mindfulness at work. I hope you like it. All right. Hi, Francis.
Francis: Hi, Raul.
Raul: We're here to talk about mindfulness at work, but I guess we figured we should start a little about for those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting you before, so maybe give us some intro about who you are and how did you get into this business.
Francis: I'm Francis Lacoste, I'm a Director of Engineering at Heroku. I'm also a longterm practitioner of meditation. Started the practice over 15 years ago and a couple of years, I think three years ago I attended a public workshop from the Search Inside Yourself Institute. This is a program started at Google and I had an epiphany there of seeing things even though like I had been a long time meditation practitioner, felt the benefit in my life never really made the connection on how that could transform work, the workplace we spend a lot of our times in, and was really blown away by the framing and the program, the language that they were using, which made it accessible to the corporate culture, and also the impact that these techniques can ... Basically, my way of thinking about it is, it's level of the baseline at which everyone can operate in work life and also personal life. And that makes everything easier and better. Yeah, that's how I got into this and brought this at Heroku. After that workshop, it was, "Okay, I need to bring this back to Salesforce at Heroku."
Francis: Heroku is a very distributed company, that's why I came to Heroku. I have a background as an engineering manager at Canonical before, which was also a totally distributed company, so lots of experience managing remote teams, which is why I joined Heroku, there was a need for that year. I live and work from Montreal in Canada on the east coast. The workshop was in Montreal. The Search Inside Yourself workshops are all over the place, many major US cities and Canada, Europe even Asia, Africa, and Australia, I think. Yeah, so there was a public workshop in Montreal, which I was in person that I attended.
Raul: And when did you join Heroku?
Francis: I don't remember, 2013, so five year ... Over five years ago.
Raul: And when you run into the actual workshop, is it something that you ... I guess ... What was the motivation in the first place when you heard the workshop was happening in Montreal?
Francis: We had someone at Heroku VAT team at the time that was interested in mindfulness and mindfulness is something that Salesforce was interested in, although I think the two ... I'm not ... I don't remember which one came first, but it was part of like there was an opening to that of that that could benefit people's life at work. And two speakers at an internal conference, at Heroku, one of them were Ire Phillip Golden, I'm not sure his last name, but he's a professor at Stanford, was one of the scientific ... Part of the scientific community of Search Inside Yourself, and he had like, I was really interested by a stake on the conversions of neuroscience and meditation practice, and that led me basically to research the Search Inside Yourself program, and that's how I discovered ... I subscribe to their list, and then when a workshop was announced in Montreal. I said, "Okay, I'm interested in attending that." And was fortunate enough that my manager was supportive of the workshop. That's how it happened.
Raul: We're back in the days and you basically made these ... Participated in the workshop and you immediately thought, "Wow, this is ... This could be useful for Heroku." Can you walk me through what was in your mind when you started it in the first place? How do you think we could ... All Heroku guys benefit from this, program?
Francis: Yeah. What is interesting about the Search Inside Yourself, when ... A lot of mindfulness now at ... In the way it's packaged or taught is mainly ... And this is also like, it's frame in most of the Salesforce Mindfulness program. This was also how it was presented originally from ... Within Heroku, it's about stress and wellbeing, which is you use mindfulness to be able to better cope with stress and increase wellbeing. And that's great. But what is interesting, what is awesome about the Search Inside Yourself that take on it is that they use mindfulness as part of emotional intelligence training programs, so it's not ... mindfulness is kind of, it's the basis on which you can build these higher level emotional social skills, leadership skills, the cornerstone, developing self awareness. And then there's other stuff on top of that. But, self awareness. And they used the contemplative practice too, which is a training program to foster self awareness. And so it goes beyond just wellbeing and stress in a more ... It's how to interact better with people and they'll provide vision, engagement, conflict resolution. It's a very wide package in a way all fitting together.
Francis: That was okay. And in a distributed environment, and even like in any really office, there's always like conflicts and especially in a distributed environment, it's very easy to avoid getting into conflict or just ignore because you don't have people every day in your physical space, so there's a need for ... And let's be honest, the culture we live in, unless you're very, very fortunate, like, come from a very fortunate enlightened parents background, most of us really don't have any training on how to resolve conflict in matched way, and so this is not part of the courses we get at school and this is not part of the courses we get from most people, family education, so there needs to be a training and to learn because these are learnable skills. And that was a program that can basically help level up and grow people in that dimension, which is ... Which makes, like I said, everything easier afterward.
Francis: And Search Inside Yourself as part of the workshop there's ... They have a program to bring this to the enterprise in your organization and that sort of thing. I attended that, look, okay, what is their offering and say, okay, there's this program and we think it would be great to bring this to Heroku. And that took a number ... Actually, I think it took two years to really ... From when I ... After I attended a public workshop and when we had our first internal workshop.
Raul: And remind me, this is ... Initially the way they proposed Google, or actually was it actually coming from Google as a company or-?
Francis: It's a program that was developed at ... Internally at Google that they spun off in an independent organization because it ... It didn't ... It can benefit a lot of other folks and not only be Google.
Raul: And it wasn't oriented, only for work or was it?
Raul: Anybody could benefit from it.
Francis: And it's interesting because from the feedback I'm getting, I heard a lot of people, the first place where people benefit from this is in their personal life, at the home, because this is also another area where there's a lot of tensions, conflict, which is just part of human life. A lot of people apply it and see even if it's also outside of work. Yeah, these are like transferable skills across all dimensions of human.
Raul: And it's really interesting that when you participated in the program, you thought this is actually not only useful at my own personal life, but also it's something that a good ... Bring to the rest of the company that you work ... You're working for, right? And it's really interesting that you point out the distributed aspect, because it is true that even I think in person, you might want to avoid conflict by not participating in ... Not engaging in conversations, not participating in specific projects. Maybe if you don't want to work with a specific person. Luckily, it hasn't been my case, but I can imagine that could be someone else's and it is through that, maybe in a distributed environment you can just turn off your camera, maybe, so you're not giving signals about your own stress or ... What were the challenges that you have encountered in terms of putting this in practice?
Francis: The biggest challenge was that their offering was only public, who ... They were doing in person workshops and organization and that given how many people are outside of San Francisco and don't work in the office, we ask for ... We discussed with them, "Can you create a virtual version of the program?" That was part of the delay. This was the transfer of the content of the program to the virtual format, and that was the pilot we run at Heroku, which was for a totally remote, the distributed version of the workshop.
Raul: Yeah. What were the differences in ... About the content ... Were there any differences in the content of the program?
Francis: There were not really significant difference in the content. There is significant difference in the delivery, because ... The workshop is designed as a two day in person workshop, very intensive, that doesn't translate well to ... Nobody wants to be like eight hours into a video call, just too much. It doesn't work. It has been rebuilt as a six, two hour sessions instead of two days. And it's on the Zoom platform, which translate very well for the break because it's a very interactive workshop, there's a lot of breakouts where you will practice with someone else or two other peoples. And that just translate very well ... That works very well in the Zoom platform. From that perspective, there was no loss from my perspective. And yeah, no, I think it translated very well into the virtual space.
Raul: I guess you can say that the trainer.
Francis: Yeah, they're the teachers.
Raul: The teachers.
Francis: They were the teachers.
Raul: The teachers come in, everybody's on the same video call the first minutes. I guess it depends on the actual content at that time, whether it's a ... It's one person talking and everybody else listening. But I guess at the time the practice ... The first practice started, they were split in different breakouts on different rooms, and then there was a time to come back, not to the main room where everybody's tuning in. From your experiences, like the feedback I've heard from people who have participated ... Not even the feedback that you've heard from that person specifically, but have you noticed any ... An actual change on the person comparing before and after?
Francis: As part of the program, they do a pre-assessment, post assessment, and we did a six months follow up to assess the benefit of the program. And yeah, there's a bunch of dimensions that they look at and we saw a noticeable improvements on ... Well, stress of course, but, more importantly from my perspective around resilience, also empathy, compassion and that stake ... That was still their six months after. To me, it's also a long game, because these are skills that it's not like you take a two days workshop and a silver bullet, everything's rosy, it's more kind of bringing you some practice to put in practice to help make these skills, grow these skills by practicing them over the longterm. And the more people practice that, the easier ... It adds ... Each culture change over time. It was funny because the founder of the [inaudible 00:14:05] when he started at Google was kind of, oh, his goal was to bring world peace, which is very grandiose.
Francis: But after seeing the program, going through it and then really how ... What it ... Because it was built ... The Google aspect is it's very scientific, there's a lot of the bridge like bringing a lot of knowledge from neuro ... Provided a lot of information from the neuroscience perspective, psychological perspective, so grounded in science, the contemplative wisdom tradition, and also oriented towards the benefits that it brings. It's really speaks a language of return on the investment of that is the lingua franca of organizations today. I said, "Oh, that's actually ... " Yeah, that could be ... I could see how that could work because a lot of people ... We spend so much time at work and that's an area where we get a lot of ... We learn a lot. We continue to learn and grow and like I said, these skills are not part of this school curriculums yet, nor of the family traditions, so where to get that is from organization and there we would ... That's actually ... And that's how things can change over the longterm.
Raul: I think, just in my experience personally, whenever I talk to people about mindfulness, or meditation, or anything related to that, maybe for obvious reasons, depending on their cultural background, they might be more receptive or the more reluctant about what I'm talking about. Maybe it would be helpful, I guess to explain for the listeners what do you consider a mindfulness practice maybe or maybe starting from defining for those who ...
Francis: Yeah. What is mindfulness.
Raul: ... Yeah, don't have experience with this.
Francis: Yeah. There are multiple definitions of mindfulness. The one that's often used is that comes from John Gavin Zinn, which is being present with what is arising in a non-judgmental manner. Yeah, that's the definition. There are others. Mindfulness is cultivating to me presence and clarity. If we want to get the history behind it, these are techniques brought from Buddhism, secular mindfulness, which is a secularized version of practices that you find in Buddhism.
Raul: And you have been doing this for over a decade.
Francis: This type of meditation is more recent for me. A couple of years before that it was more like, concentration based meditation, which has a different flavor. It's very good to develop concentration power, absorption, but-
Raul: Focus as well.
Francis: Yeah, focus. But the mindfulness techniques are ... I have a more emphasis on developing clarity. Actually, my background as a practitioner is eclectic. I've practiced in that a lot of different techniques and tradition.
Raul: Do you meditate every day?
Francis: Most. Over to my personal journey has been to relax a little bit the practice, when I started I was really young, like more gung-ho type of practitioner, which is, and-
Raul: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Francis: Well, very important to be very rigid and disciplined. A lot of people come, often the problem they have is getting a regular practice that when I decided, "Okay, this is interesting, I want to explore that, I went just full speed and the soul never had a problem sitting every day." Personally, that's my makeup, that's also where we are controlling my experience, controlling what is happening and that sort of thing, which is a form of closure. And basically at some point in my practice is opening up and being open to, "Well, no, I don't need to sit every day. It's okay if I don't sit every day." And being more adaptive to what was arising. Specifically in this case, it's being more present with my family and having ... That has an impact.
Francis: Practically, basically, I sit every day, every morning except on the weekend, which are for family time. And if it happens and I can sit, I will, but it's not. But that's more for the formal practice part of sitting, but actually, I do practice every day because a lot of the practice is just dropping in in the moment, connecting ... Having a mindful moment and that sort of thing. I do practice several times a days, always. It's more friendly, it's part of it. That has been weaved into my life.
Raul: Yeah. It's interesting that you mentioned that it sounds like you were okay with you not meditating every day, which is I think part of the whole purpose in terms of you don't judge yourself if you don't meditate one day. You might be okay if you're losing your temper and the important things are, I guess to know what to do when that happens. Correct me if I'm wrong, your family has been benefited from your practices?
Francis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I personally I'm less an asshole if you asked my wife.
Raul: Have you heard similar feedback at Heroku about things for instance, "Since I started meditating, I happier, I feel like I'm doing better job I ... My family is ... And joining the fact that I'm doing it."
Francis: Nobody said it like that, but yeah, everybody that has shared the impact of this in their life is that appreciative in some ways. Like I said, these things takes time and it's often like over the longterm, which is, "Oh, this ... Three years ago, this is what I would totally have freaked out in this situation. And oh, well no, actually this time it happened and sure it was hard and painful, but ... " It's really over the long term when looking back that you see that we're able to ... That you assess the transformation. It kind of grows on you, and at some point you're like, "Oh, okay."
Raul: And what are the things that we do at Heroku today that are embracing this mindfulness practice? What are the programs? What are the things we do apart from the Search Inside Yourself workshop that we offer for employees?
Francis: We have guilds which we are self organized group around a particular topic across the organization, and there is a mindfulness guild that we form and where we meet, we have multiple hours because of the different time zones, and where we sit together and then share how are the practices going, challenge we're facing or success we had. And so it's a support group for people interested in applying this to ... In their life really.
Raul: And we do practice.
Raul: We do a practice as well.
Raul: It was really interesting to me, the first time I joined, I tuned in to the call, I wasn't really sure what to expect joining, remotely. Everybody's on a video conference call, so you could do it anywhere. There were some tapes before in terms of, make sure you're not going to be distracted or am I getting this wrong? No, maybe I missed.
Francis: I always like to actually, yeah. I'm more of the school that, people in Burma and Thailand are meditating next to the market where animals are slaughtering ... Are being slaughtered and there's a lot of chaos, so it's kind of, if you can only meditate in total silence, that's ... This is a kind of view ... An expectation that is constructed and made up. And this is a two ... Way of, no, okay. It's, okay if you have like a kid's coming in don't have to mute or feel you cannot join because, yeah, we want to minimize background noise and that sort of thing. But at the same time, it's okay if it happens, don't feel bad or so, yeah.
Raul: And for those who want to incorporate this into their companies, can you walk us through the process in terms of, okay, so leading usually the sessions, sometimes we have Christine and some other people at Heroku who will lead the sessions, I believe, so everybody in the call, maybe they might share if they want to share, like you said, concerns and things that basically want to share to the rest of the group in terms of the mindfulness practice. But then I'd remember we've done Heroku's type of meditation in which everybody in the room takes a deep breath and then counts.
Francis: Yeah. What we did ... And this is often we ... I brought a form of ... It's called social meditation, which I got that from my teachers, Vince and Emily Yarn from Meditate IO, which they have a great DIY if you ... Actually, if you want to learn about mindfulness, that's a great place to start. They have a complete online self-paced curriculum. And they also do basically a translation of social forms of meditation. If you go to a mindfulness group, there's a lot of sitting together, but it's basically everybody doing the practice by themselves in the same space. And that's totally fine. This is what you do at Search Inside Yourself. That's how you practice. They learn this technique from another teacher kind of folk, and they've expanded on it.
Francis: This one is a social concentration, which is a social take on the classic breath counting meditation that you find in Zen and other traditions, where attention is on deep breath and at the end of the out-breath for multiples, we can do that. But usually, at the end of the out-breath you count from one to 10 your breath. That's a way to keep the concentration going and avoid distractions and that sort of thing. And the social take on it is that instead of counting ... Everyone tracking their account internally, there's a social interaction component where we speak aloud the count and the count is shared. What is interesting about this form is that, it's kind of using the peer pressure to foster concentration, because you don't want to be the one dropping the count, so that way, it's really being more focused on what's happening.
Francis: And it's also what is interesting is it's also a form of meditation that translate well into outside of the formal practice, because in life we're in a social context so all of the social triggers are there. The one thing to be not looking a fool or however we ... Everyone is ... Has different triggers and social contacts, and so that ... These are there and arise as part of the exercise. We get to be able to practice with this additional social dimension that is always there in work life and personal life. That's one of the practices we did. People want to bring this to their work. The first one is basically learning for yourself, you know what I mean? Find someone to learn the practices from, and then when you want to bring that, there's starting basically a user group or a peer group of people who are interested where you can practice together multiples where you can do that, and then share, that's very helpful. And yeah.
Raul: The first time I participated, the immediate thing I thought when I finished the call was, "I need to do it this with my family. I don't know if they'll do that, if they're willing to even try it, but it was really fun to do it." Yeah. And we'll make sure we leave the link of the meditation information that you just mentioned. We'll make sure we leave that in the post notes, so people who is interested in continuing with this and learning from what you started learning from can do that. Thank you so much, Francis. Is there anything that you want to say to finish? How can we reach out to you if you're on the Internet? Maybe you're not.
Francis: Who's not on the the Internet these days? I'm on Twitter, not very active, so probably the best way to reach out to me is via email.
Raul: Yeah. The firstname.lastname@example.org, if you want to join us.
Francis: Yes. Also, we have openings.
Raul: All right. Well, thank you so much, Francis for your time and for sharing your experience.
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Raúl Barroso is a coffee nerd who joined Heroku in 2012. He was born in Tenerife and lived in San Francisco, but you can find him in Madrid these days
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