At first, work and meditation were separate activities for Golbie Kamarei. These days, she is a poster girl for combining them, after the meditation classes she started at BlackRock, the powerful New York-based investment firm where she worked, grew to 1,500 participants. She recently decided to leave the firm to advise companies interested in starting such programs of their own and to coach top executives in mindfulness.
It all started in 2011, when she decided to immerse herself in a five-day mindfulness meditation retreat at an ashram in the Caribbean. She had done yoga on and off since college and figured if this new experience didn't work out, she could always spend the rest of her vacation on the beach. But she didn't get much sun in.
"That's when everything shifted. In the first meditation I had an experience that showed the power of this practice," she recalled in an interview.
A Stanford psychology graduate, she has an intellectual understanding of the mind. But in meditation, she experienced it directly, observing how her mind wandered and how it served as a filter by which the world is experienced. She began to devote her weekends and vacations to meditation retreats, finding it healing. And the barrier between this private activity and work started to dissolve as colleagues asked her about her passion and whether she could lead some guided meditation for them.
By 2013, she was vice-chairwoman of the people and culture committee at BlackRock's New York office and mentioned the possibility at a meeting. An e-mail was sent to 2,500 people and 60 people showed interest, with 30 joining at the first session. She committed to be present each week, except during vacations, calling in when on business trips.
Word spread, a unique grassroots initiative, and folks in other offices wanted in, until employees in 31 cities were taking part by calling in from their desks or sitting together in a conference room if they couldn't be at the New York session. It had the largest participation rate of any employee-led initiative in the company, as people told their colleagues and an article on the Intranet site also sparked interest.
She delineates four different motivators that drew participants: Reducing stress; increasing focus and attention; interest in techniques to build emotional awareness; and experiencing the health advantages of meditation. The program expanded to two 30-minute sessions a week, one morning and one afternoon, during work hours. Sessions were also recorded so that people could dip in at lunch hour or in the evenings.
Many people have an interest in meditation or other activities that might help provide balance in their lives. But the difficulty is finding time, in a complicated, busy life. Her goal was to remove inhibitors and make it easy to explore this avenue, and having sessions at work during business hours was particularly helpful. "The only limitation was for them to make time for it," she said.
Not everyone bought in but she enjoyed talking to the skeptics and challenging their preconceptions. Some people felt it might make them weak, less able to compete in a dog-eat-dog world. Others felt it simply didn't belong in the workplace.
Although the company sanctioned the activity by allowing it to be held at work, meditation and work were still separate in her personal time budget. She was not being paid, after all, to run meditation classes. She still had a demanding regular job as a global program manager within the client business division, and the meditation classes were a voluntary activity. Some weeks she might devote 20 hours of personal time to the program but gradually a group of volunteers sprung up to share the organizational burden.
Now based in San Francisco, she is taking the practice to other interested firms. "Most companies don't maximize the potential of their human capital," she said. She believes meditation can boost energy and focus, and help people to collaborate better.
But before jumping into such a program, companies must be clear on the expected outcome. For some, a collaborative culture might be the goal, for others a more innovative team. They also must be clear on why they are doing it. "If the why is not coming from a place of service – helping others – it won't have the impact it should have and won't be sustainable," she said.
That doesn't mean, however, the programs can't be promoted as helping performance. After all, the audience is interested in increasing their productivity and that might bring them to the table. "The practice changes you. So I don't get upset if someone says 'I want this to improve my performance,'" she said.
Companies need to identify who will design and lead the program, whether internally or externally. Although she brought in outside facilitators for her own program to show other approaches, often they had difficulty making the transition to a corporate audience. But as mediation becomes more mainstream, that will be less of a barrier.
There must also be an internal champion with influence who embodies the practice and serves as a conduit for keeping top management on board and persuading employees to give mindfulness a try.
After all, meditation and work need not be separate.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter