Mindfulness matters: How the maker of a brain-sensing headband stays true to company values during difficult times

Mindfulness matters: How the maker of a brain-sensing headband stays true to company values during difficult times

InteraXon co-founder Ariel Garten shares how the venture is helping its employees — as well as its customers — navigate the stress of COVID-19.

Ariel Garten starts and ends each day the same way: with a meditation.

While it’s long been an essential part of the tech executive’s routine, over the past year, she’s seen how it’s helped so many people cope with the stress of living through a global pandemic.

InteraXon, the company Garten co-founded in 2010 with Chris Aimone and Trevor Coleman, is the maker of a range of products that address everything from sleep hygiene to self-compassion and stress management. Its meditation headband Muse uses next-generation EEG technology to measure body movement, heartbeat, breath and mental activity, and gives auditory cues to guide users to a calmer state of mind. Essentially, the company’s technology helps people foster healthy habits. As the pandemic began to spread last spring, Garten was able to watch — in real time — how people’s tendencies shifted from focusing on self-improvement to self-preservation. “As soon as COVID hit, our most popular meditations were ‘Finding Calm in the Chaos,’ ‘From Frazzled to Focused’ and ‘Dealing with Uncertainty,” says Garten. “We very rapidly saw the tone of the kinds of meditations that people were looking for dramatically change.”

Worrying about the safety of her family and team as well as making sure her business was operating up-to-speed was keeping her up at night. “I needed to really approach those fears that were keeping me from being able to function,” says Garten. “Bringing in consistent practices to just get my heart rate down and to also really examine the validity of those thoughts was key.” Ramping up her own practice, she realized that the pandemic presented a rare opportunity for the startup — a chance to reach a wider audience with a product that can make a difference in people’s lives.

Garten and CEO Derek Luke weren’t interested in growth at all costs, however. They worked to ensure that the mindful ethos of InteraXon remain the driving principle. And it worked: Over the past 12 tumultuous months, InteraXon has not only managed to grow its team internationally with new hires in South American and the U.S., but it also increased revenues and found new ways of engaging with customers.


Coming to terms with a new way of business

In the before times, the InteraXon office in downtown Toronto was designed to cultivate creativity and collaboration. Open-concept and colourful, it’s a place where developers skateboarded to meetings and dogs acted as desk companions. Employees were encouraged to fully immerse themselves in meditation practices through sleep rooms, pod chairs and guided sessions.

Once the switch to remote work became necessary, Garten says she saw immediate changes in the ways people were communicating. Quick, one-off hallway chats were no longer an option; everything needed to be much more deliberate and organized.


For Luke and Garten, it was paramount that the company keep its culture alive through other means. The team’s weekly Tuesday morning meetings begin with a casual chat, followed by a group meditation session, then business unit updates and gratitude sharing. The area of focus for the meditation shifts from week-to-week depending on what’s relevant to the team: sometimes it’s beta-testing a new product feature, looking at an important life event or even a shared experience like the first snowfall. This will often take the form of a guided visualization, led by Garten or one of the other members of the leadership team.

“The team really enjoys it,” says Garten. “When we all come back to the Zoom you can see the smiles on peoples’ faces.”

The team also started sending out quarterly surveys to gauge employee sentiment and to see if any immediate adjustments could be made. It’s been an effective way to keep employees engaged and gives them an outlet to voice concerns. “It’s a cycle,” says Garten. “Taking the temperature, changing, improving, adapting.”

Leaning in to the company’s culture of continuous learning, InteraXon is launching a mindfulness leadership course centred on employees. The three-part program, which is open to team members at any level, is led by one of their meditation experts and aims to help staff feel connected and be more mindful in the workplace. Course materials range from emotional intelligence training to performance feedback practices and connecting with colleagues.


Mindfulness for the masses

Having the validation from their own team’s success with meditation practices and recognizing the need for hands-on help at other organizations, InteraXon has also launched a corporate wellness program to bring its expertise to companies of all sizes.

Participants are offered a range of services from discounted gear to remote onboarding, personalized coaching and regular check-ins for goal alignment, which can help to increase employee engagement and well-being; something that has been particularly challenging for remote teams. One of their major American clients told Garten that employees were opening up about typically taboo workplace topics in ways they had never seen before. Mental health, anxiety, personal challenges; nothing was off the table. “It allows people to open up and actually be more honest about what’s going on and find real solutions for it,” says Garten.

Now, companies that enroll in the program are sent devices for all employees, who can then take part in live remote training sessions with a practiced member of the InteraXon team and break out into groups for further learning. The program is split into two areas of focus: managing thoughts and stress, then putting learned skills into practice. “It’s exactly what people need now,” says Garten. “And what we’ve actually found is that virtual makes it quite effective.”


Collaboration is still key

Having adjusted into a steadier work-from-home routine, the InteraXon team is now taking the time to sink their teeth into annual planning; something that would normally be a facilitated event at a rented space with sticky notes and whiteboards. With that not being a possibility this year, the remote process looks quite different.

What was once a single-day planning session has turned into a month-long sprint, where employees are broken into teams working in spreadsheets to map out the internal workings of the next year. Leadership then has the chance to review everyone’s ideas and recommendations to ensure all teams’ perspectives are being taken into consideration. The new and more collaborative process has allowed everyone to be involved, and have a say in the direction of the company, Garten says.

“Everybody has the opportunity to comment on what we’re doing for the year to poke holes in it to say what they think is wrong or what we should be doing instead” she says. “We’re all building the future of the company together.”