A “Walk in the Woods” Helps Employees Unplug and See More Clearly

Phil Schwarzmann

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s famous retreat to the woods on Walden Pond in Massachusetts lasted more than two years. The “Walk in the Woods” program sponsored by Equinix brings employees out to the woods at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park for a little over two days. But the retreats share similar aims: to step back and breathe, to look inside and look around, and to discover what’s important.

“We’re getting deep into who you are really are,” said Pete Ferris, Equinix’s chief evangelist, who founded and runs the program.

Equinix’s first “Walk in the Woods” was last August, and it’s most recent was last month, with more planned for this summer. The program’s foundational concept is “a better me and a better we” and it aims to create healthier people who also happen to be healthier employees.

Prominent companies, such as Google with its “Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute,” sponsor similar initiatives to nurture worker well-being. But Ferris admitted he wasn’t initially sure the Equinix program would take.

“It’s a little out there, it’s a little squishy. I wondered, ‘Does it have a place in corporate America?'” Ferris said. “And the impressive response will tell you it absolutely does.”

Vivek Kumar, a digital marketing manager at Equinix, went on the “Walk in the Woods” in June. He came back determined to connect less with technology and more with nature and the people around him.

“I had a phenomenal experience,” he said.

Ferris puts the all-volunteer trips of about a dozen hikers together with Timmy O’Neill, a mountain climber and former executive of a company that leads wilderness trips with wounded veterans to restore their confidence. Ferris said he realized Equinix employees could also benefit from a trip that took them away from their devices and deep into the woods, to put them back in touch with who they are and what’s important to them.

One of the first things “Walk in the Woods” hikers must do is put away their phones. They camp out under the stars with no running water or toilets. The group is not totally “roughing it,” (sample menu: fresh watermelon over feta cheese, seared duck breast), but what they are doing is getting real with themselves and each other in long hikes and a series of discussions led by Ferris. The group starts out as near strangers. But by the end the sharing is deep and emotional, Kumar said.

“Passions started coming out. People really started opening up,” he recalled.

Kumar said that while the bonding with fellow employees was powerful, so was the chance for introspection. At points during the weekend, hikers are given time to walk apart from each other, so the sounds of the forest and their own steps are all they hear.

“The place was beautiful, but the quietness for me was profound,” Kumar said.

Ferris said the personal benefits of the program for hikers are obvious, but so are the benefits in the workplace.

“People who are more self-aware and mindful are going to work better in teams,” he said. “They are going to manage their time and energy better, versus just getting up chugging coffee, trying to do a thousand emails a day and running the marathon.”

Kumar said a Walk in the Woods didn’t just give him a different perspective on life, but also on his employer.

“I think now I am even more excited and loyal to Equinix,” he said. “They don’t just pay my bills, they are trying to teach me how to be a more holistic person.”

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