Fireside Chat with Michael Action Smith, OBE, and Richa Gupta

 Fireside Chat with Michael Action Smith, OBE, and Richa Gupta

“Meditation has changed the way that I lead and the way I lead my own life,” said Michel Acton Smith, CEO of Calm, the number one app for sleep and meditation. “I used to try and squeeze every last minute out of every day. But I was not happy. I was not sleeping, and my relationships suffered. I believe having a mindfulness meditation practice has improved my life.” 

Acton Smith spoke to G-P’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Richa Gupta, as part of G-P’s second annual PANGEO event. He touched on several topics, such as the pandemic, mental health awareness, building culture in remote-first environments, and encouraging an environment where ideas flourish. 

The rise of mental health awareness 

Calm, which had humble beginnings from a one-bed apartment in San Francisco in 2012, has grown to be a powerhouse, with over 4,000 companies now using the app to aid their workforce’s mental health. 

Alongside its growth, Acton Smith has seen mental health awareness move in from the shadows to become a fundamental pillar of companies’ infrastructure. He reminisced with Gupta how initially his ideas around meditation and Calm were seen as “New Age and Californian,” but now “mental health is front and center, and companies are actively looking for ways to help their workforce. They are interested in the whole person and not just their work output.” 

Humans are social animals 

Strangely, the Covid-19 pandemic played a significant role in this seismic shift. 

“Mental health was growing before the pandemic, but the pandemic shone a bright light on it, and now people take it way more seriously, as they should,” Acton Smith said. “With loneliness and isolation — humans are social animals, and we were separated from our tribe. Meetings on Zoom were not the same thing. It is no wonder we’re in a mental health crisis right now with depression, insomnia, and anxiety.” 

The second thing that Acton Smith credited to bringing mental health awareness in from the cold is the new generation of workers who expect much more from work rather than a paycheck and a 9-to-5 routine.  

“They want to know the mission, change the world, and have fun and joy while doing it. This is not an easy balance for companies, but it is essential for attracting top talent today.”  

Maintaining culture in a remote-first world 

Directing the conversation, Gupta enquired how a company like Calm can build a supportive work culture, particularly since the mass adoption of remote work following the pandemic. 

“Creating magic in a remote environment is harder but not impossible,” Acton Smith said. He explained how Calm attempts to weave their culture into every Zoom call and the importance of regularly sending physical care packages to his teams. In addition, there are Zoom-free days, mental health days, and fun-orientated Slack channels. He firmly believes in meeting up when possible for dinners and brainstorming sessions in person. “Those touchpoints are really valuable to reinforce your culture,” he said. 

Naturally, a core part of the day at Calm is their daily 10 a.m. meditation. This was a ritual in the company’s early days and has since been reintroduced following the pandemic. Acton Smith sees it as a “great way for employees to get on the same level.”  

A new idea is like a fragile butterfly 

Finally, Acton Smith aims to create an environment where anyone can put forward an idea, stating that “a new idea is like a fragile butterfly that can be easily trampled under the foot of processes.” In contrast, he wants his workers to know that if their ideas don’t work out, “that’s okay. As long as people learn and can apply it to what they do in the future, that’s alright.” 

His blueprint is sound. When you encourage people to be their true authentic selves, you can unlock their value, encourage them to take risks, and checkmate any potential toxic or unpleasant environments.  

“When people are free to play on the edge, they often come up with not-so-obvious ideas and move society forward,” Acton Smith concluded. 

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