We spoke with Erkan Kasap, Mindful Leadership Coach and founder of the Mindful Business Club about why working from home can be an act of mindfulness and the tool for a happier and more productive engineering team.
You have been a software developer and manager for the past 20 years and have gained a lot of experience. You say that software developers have special skills. Can you explain?
I believe that software developers—regardless of the industry they work in—are cursed with creativity, so to speak. I’ve seen that a lot in video game development. On the one hand, developers must be able to act and program extremely logically. On the other hand, they’re also expected to be highly original and unique when solving issues and problems. All this requires immense creativity. Mindfulness plays a key role here.
I hear very often: “Erkan, I just need to get really stuck in with some tricky backend stuff today. I’ll be working from home to do so.” This is exactly where mindfulness already starts: Anyone who realizes that a task requires focus and concentration, and finds a quiet place to do it, is being mindful. They know: “this is what I need to do my work in a focused and concentrated manner.” That is mindfulness.
“Anyone who realizes that a task requires focus and concentration, and finds a quiet place to do it, is practicing Mindfulness.”
So you think that software developers have stronger protection mechanisms to do their mentally demanding jobs? Would you say that they are seen as role models?
Yes. In fact, I think that developers intuitively know how best to do their jobs. Of course, software development is also teamwork, even if everyone has their own job to do in the end. So when it is just person vs code, they need to find a way to get into the flow.
Do software developers have to be more self-aware compared to other professionals?
Yes. Studies show that one in three people in the working world are stressed and about 70% of middle managers are overstrained. Developers have stress. Dealing with a new topic every two weeks in a rather agile manner creates pressure. Always questioning how to get the job done even faster.
To deal with these topics you founded the Mindful Business Club with Cigdem Serbest. What’s the goal behind that?
I started about 20 years ago in the operative IT department of an international company. I managed up to 669 employees and of course, I asked myself: How does a team function? At what point do systems have a life of their own? Direct influence on this scale is only possible to a limited extent because a group dynamic has long since developed. That was the first time I saw how little managers and organizations deal with the human factor.
The term human resource alone says it all. Employees are seen as a resource that are brought into the company to do a certain job. That was okay before the service age; the problems were less complex and the issues were repetitive back then. Today, an automated project planning software tool tells you what the optimal task completion looks like. Compared to the past, the focus today is on people and their issues with the question: How can employees develop their full potential? This was the impetus for the foundation of the Mindful Business Club. My goal is to approach coaching from a different perspective. I want to make it more relaxed, and much more practical. My work experience provides me with valuable impulses for this.
How does the Mindful Business Club work?
Interestingly enough, the initiators are seldom in the HR department, but mostly in C-level. There, the employees think about how to future proof their organization. We touch on topics such as New Work, for example, and use mindful, practical management methods to further develop employees and managers. Ideally, everyone is in one team. But we have often noticed that managers have a certain inhibition threshold to open up in front of employees in such training sessions. Usually, the bosses are more vulnerable than the employees. It is human to show weaknesses, and managers are just people with fears and needs. Separation helps to coach them in dealing better with the worries in their working environment.
Does mindfulness have an image problem, especially in Germany?
Absolutely. Absolutely. When I talk about the Mindful Business Club and that we offer mindfulness events, I get asked: “Oh, so do you meditate there?” Most people don’t understand the potential. Especially because mindfulness is not an elementary component in the western world, which—like many soft skills—needs to be promoted and developed.
At school, nobody teaches us how to deal with emotions. Either you learn it at home or you don’t. We don’t learn how to express wishes, express our frustration, or show someone how to make their hurtful behavior known. The traditional way of thinking is that this has no place in the working world. We negate it. When entering the company, the emotion is handed over at the cloakroom together with the jacket.
At the beginning we spoke of the good instinct techies have to demand mindfulness and personal space. How can companies support this?
One example is that we have implemented the change of the appointment calendar in larger companies because it contained many meetings at different times. Our solution: defragment the team calendar. In this way, half and whole days open up, free of meetings, leaving space and peace for concentrated work.
The other day I saw in the signature of a developer that he uses an extension that only retrieves emails three times a day.
That’s a clear message for the recipient: Do not expect an immediate answer. Also useful: the Pomodoro technique. Twenty minutes of concentrated work and 6-7 minutes break. This gives you strength for the next 20 minutes. There are apps for this too. I highly recommend it to everyone.
How can you be mindful, resolve conflicts and still remain agile and competitive?
This is indeed a major hurdle. At first glance, mindfulness and profit-oriented action seem to contradict each other. But let’s look at it from the other side: How much frictional loss is caused daily by incorrect work processes? Companies often ask about measurability, but nobody knows. This shows that organizations or companies are focused on achieving measurable figures to attract investors in the market. It’s all about agility and efficiency, but you don’t know how much loss happens through unresolved conflicts,for example, in interdisciplinary communication or the lost creativity of employees. Every employee comes into the office for eight hours and has a certain amount of energy to perform. The higher the stress, the more this valuable energy is used for other things; time in which work is not focused. The result: people are exhausted in the evening, without the desire for sports or family. In the back of one’s mind remains the question of the open To do’s at work and the thought of having achieved too little.
“It is unacceptable that people today still suffer from professional burnout. Companies must take proactive measures to prevent this, not wait until it’s too late.”
The opposite of mindfulness is burnout. Do you also have experience with this from your work as a coach?
Recently, I had a group training in which one participant was very open to the topic.e had been close to burnout last year. We can avoid this in the Mindful Business Club. It is unacceptable that people today still suffer from professional burnout. We want to get to the point where we don’t just act out of necessity, but rather tackle the issue straight away, like SAP or Google, for example. There are many scientific studies on the subject; good arguments for companies that are still critical in this regard.
Mindfulness is not a luxury topic but an essential part of any corporate culture. It has been proven that more mindfulness reduces staff turnover and the number of sick days and increases job satisfaction. This is particularly important for SMEs. That is what we want to make clear to companies.
Do you have a concrete tip on how companies can push the goal for more mindfulness? Should HR take the initiative? Should existing processes be adapted?
It already starts with recruiting. The appreciation of employees must be the first priority and must be lived at all levels. Self-perception and external assessment must match inside the company and with employer branding. A culture of mistakes and weaknesses must be lived out in equal measure. One-on-one tools are another option: asking how your colleague is doing. Take a close look at whether they have too much on their table or too many meetings. Managers must develop a sense of who has what skills, such as self-organisation. The aim should be to discuss topics calmly, which creates trust between employee and manager. Listen, understand, identify mistakes without blame. So that employees feel taken seriously as human beings, that makes mistakes.