Daily Routines of a Distributed Support Team Lead

My name is Andrea Badgley, and I lead a distributed team of 12 Happiness Engineers (customer support professionals) at Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com, Jetpack, and WooCommerce. I am based in Virginia in the eastern US, and my 11 teammates are based in Canada, the US, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, and wherever they happen to be travelling in any week or month of the year (one US-based teammate is currently working and nomading in South America). All of us are within 3-4 time zones of each other, depending on who’s on Daylight Savings Time and when, and it only took me about a year to stop being jarred when our Brazilian teammates are wearing wool hats and winter coats while those of us in North America are wearing shorts and flip flops.

I’ve been with Automattic for three years, first as a live chat Happiness Engineer, and for the past 16 months as a team lead, and I’m so accustomed to our distributed nature that I often forget not everyone works this way: we have no central office, we all work separately from our homes or coworking spaces, and I see my coworkers in real life only once or twice a year. It feels completely normal to me to work with people across time zones and hemispheres from my home all day every day without sharing the same physical space with them.

When I interact with people who don’t work in a distributed environment, and I tell them I lead a team that I don’t actually share space with, they’ll often ask questions like “How do you know people are showing up for work? How do you know the people you’re leading are doing their jobs?” It’s only then that I remember, oh yeah, this isn’t normal.

I recently spoke with a new Automattician who had never worked a distributed job before joining Automattic. In their first few weeks, they were thrown off by the lack of separation between home and work. They mentioned that at their old job, which included a commute, the rituals of getting ready to leave the house, then driving to the office, created a very real separation between home and work. This separation, and the associated ritual, signalled to the person, “Now I am at home,” or, “Now I am at work.” When they first started working from home, the absence of the commute and getting ready for work made it difficult for them to get started with their workday to be productive.

For myself, I create rituals that mark the beginning and (to a much lesser extent) end of the day, allowing me to be productive despite being in my home and all of its distractions. The problem I’m continually working on is actually the opposite of the situation I described above: I tend to let work creep into my life, and I have to use rituals to create boundaries so I take care of myself and my family (and my blogging!) rather than letting work take over everything.

Mornings

Clocks and timers are my friend, and I use them to delineate my routines since I don’t have a physical separation between work and home. My daily pre-work ritual begins at 5:30am with a workout, then emptying the dishwasher, then making a smoothie. This usually brings me to about 6:15am, when I sit in the living room with a notebook and pen, and I write. I start a teapot around 6:45 and plan to have my cup ready by 7:00am, when I open my laptop to begin work.

I begin my workday in the living room so I can be around the kids while they’re getting ready for school. I start my day by saying hi to my team on Slack, then I spend the next 30-60 minutes reading P2s (our internal blogs), catching up on Slack backscroll (conversations that happened since I was last logged in to work), and responding to easy-to-repond-to pings.

Me on tread desk
Working from treaddesk. I’m not sure why I’m wearing this dress — I never wear this dress while I work. I’m always in workout clothes. I do always smile that much.

After the kids get on the bus, I move from the living room to my tread desk in my downstairs office. My brain and my body are most alert in the morning, and I walk for about four hours before lunch(at 2.5 mph, so 10 miles per day). As much as I can, I schedule my active work during the morning, while I’m walking. By active work I mean anything that requires _doing_: tracking the team’s work, digging into weekend chat and ticket coverage to understand gaps, making notes for P2 drafts, reviewing chat transcripts, preparing for 1:1s (meetings between myself and another individual), and conducting 1:1s. I also sometimes have calls in the morning, which I love, because I can walk right through them. Up above, in the picture, is (most of) my team, Eshu, on a team call. We hang out via a Zoom video chats once per week.

Midday

Around noon, or whenever I’ve completed my 4 hours of walking, I stop the treaddesk, use my toes to pry the walking shoe off the other foot, and happily slide my feet into my slippers. I go upstairs for lunch, pop a veggie burger in a skillet, listen to a podcast while I grill my meal, and grind coffee for after lunch. Assuming I don’t have a call to join on my lunchtime (we often have calls on my lunch break since noon for me is 9AM Pacific), I’ll read fiction while I eat. If I have a video call, I’ll join the call while I lunch, and turn off the camera for my colleague’s sake so they don’t have to watch me chew.

If I remember, I shower on my lunch break. I haven’t nailed this ritual yet. I block out 1.5 hours for lunch and a shower, but lately I’ve only been taking about 25 minutes before I jump back online. This is the work-creep I’m trying to alleviate. I really should take showers on my lunch break — not doing so messes me up later in the day when I suddenly realize I need to drive somewhere at 5pm and I’m still in leggings and slippers.

Afternoon

lounge chair 13
My reward for walking all morning: working from the lounge chair by the window

After lunch, I make my coffee and move to the lounge chair in the living room. I set the mug in the windowsill, put my feet up, plop a lap desk on my lap, and work until the kids come home from school (and then some). I like to save my thoughtful work for the afternoon: thinking, writing, problem-solving. I try not to schedule 1:1s in afternoons when possible, though with 11 teammates, my own lead, a lead buddy, my 1:1 with HR, and with time zones and others’ work schedules, I often have several afternoon 1:1s throughout the week.

In afternoons, when I’m not in 1:1s or calls, I like to tackle hard things. My favorite thing to do in the afternoons is write. I’m fortunate that I get to do a lot of writing for work, and I love when I have put in a full morning of productive work and can reward myself in the afternoons with working on P2 posts or reviewing others’ drafts.

The end to my day is usually marked by needing to drive one of our kids somewhere, either swimming or soccer practice. If I don’t have to drive them somewhere, I don’t have a good ritual yet for ending my day. It’s usually marked by my husband’s return from his job, but even then, if I’m in the middle of something, I’ll keep going for longer than is healthy, sometimes leading to 10-11 hour days where I’m neglecting other things in my life that I need to attend to.

I’ve got some tweaks I’d like to make to my afternoons, like taking a 30 minute break when the kids get home from school. I work from home, after all, and that time right when they get home from school is when they’re in a chatty mood. If I wait until dinner, they’ll have moved on and won’t care to talk about their day anymore.

My afternoon rituals only seem to exist when they are imposed from the outside.

Setting boundaries: I need your help

I’ve got mornings down pat, but I’m still working on the rest of it. As I mentioned above, I struggle more with overworking than underworking, and I’ve challenged myself to set better boundaries. A couple of quarters ago, I set a personal goal to disconnect from work at the end of the work day. I started by taking Slack and work email off of my phone, and I was strict about shutting on and off at specific times.

I felt clear-headed and very happy by the end of that quarter, so much so that I was raring to go when the next quarter began. I was full of energy, wanted to take on everything, and had a super productive quarter. The next thing I knew, though, I had take on too much, was overworking again, and started feeling the strain of spreading myself too thin again. I feel like a rubber band: relaxed and full of potential, then stretched almost until I might pop.

I’m trying to make space again for life outside of work (my family! my blog!). I’ve taken Slack and email off of my phone. I’ve got a good begin-the-day routine. Now if I just had a a good end-the day routine… And a good shower strategy…

What do you do to disconnect at the end of your day?

This is my entry for Week 4 of the Support Driven Writing Challenge.

2 thoughts on “Daily Routines of a Distributed Support Team Lead

  1. Disconnecting from the work day is so hard! I’ve turned notifications off on my phone for all kinds of apps. At the end of the work day I shut my computer down, close the laptop up, set it all aside and commit to doing non-tech things for the rest of the day. …as for showers, I have to do it first thing or it won’t get done at all. Maybe set out all your towels and clothes in the morning or the night before. That way you’ll have one less barrier to getting in there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the commitment to non-tech things. I’ve been working on that one as well, and we have a household-wide no screens policy after 8pm. I probably need to disable WordPress notifications on my phone to help combat work creep, but I blog on WP and I just can’t bring myself to turn them off :-p.

      Liked by 1 person

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