One Pandemic, Four Countries and Six Different Stories

I asked my colleagues in India, the United States, the Netherlands, and Germany about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them. They share how reducing their time online has helped them, and compare their experience at Automattic with those they had at companies that are not fully distributed.

Anand Nalya

Anand, how has COVID-19 affected you and your work at Automattic?

In March, new school sessions were about to start when COVID-19 forced a nationwide shutdown in India. The kids were happy as — at the time — it meant a few extra months of summer vacation. Six months later, schools have shifted to online classes. We had to forgo our summer vacation and our kids no longer like it! For reasons unknown to me, my 9-year-old daughter likes taking her classes from my home office (thankfully, it’s only two hours each day) and my 5-year-old son is increasingly trying to make appearances during Zoom calls. I have shifted my work hours a bit to accommodate them.

Another way in which COVID-19 has affected my work, was in the initial days, when I was profusely checking virus-related news and the latest stats multiple times a day. It spurred anxiety and was also  affecting my ability to concentrate on work. Inspired by Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and supported by my team at Automattic, I went on a digital detox experiment for five weeks in July and August. For the experiment, I set fixed working hours and allowed myself no internet access outside those to reduce COVID-related and social media-induced anxiety. I spent most of my “offline” time reading books and spending time with the family. It was such a wonderful experience that the experiment is no longer an experiment — I’m following it indefinitely.

Vicki Boykis

Vicki, you joined Automattic during the COVID-19 pandemic. How has COVID-19 affected your work, and what difference has joining Automattic made for you?

Before Automattic, I worked across a mix of distributed and on-site projects in a consultancy. In some way I was already working in a distributed manner because I usually only worked with three to four of my coworkers at a time, and we all met at an office about once a month. I also travelled to our other offices once a quarter. Although we switched to remote-first client work as the pandemic hit, a significant amount of the daily work involved  synchronous meetings for collaborative facetime. This switch became harder to manage when both of my children were home for a three-month stretch beginning in March.

When I started at Automattic in June, it was clear from the beginning that distributed work could be very different, starting with my first interview, which was conducted entirely via text chat over Slack, and after that, at my own pace as I completed the trial project.

What I love is that everyone on my team works at their own pace throughout the day, with regular asynchronous check-ins. For me, personally, while the rest of my life during COVID-19 has been in complete chaos, shifting to working this way has been fantastic. We do have video chat sync points, but the assumption is that you default to remote-first, asynchronous, written communication, partly because everyone is in different timezones. The other thing that has been really valuable is the unlimited time off policy. The combination of async working styles, the ability to plan and pace my work mostly as it makes sense for me, and the ability to take days off as I need them have been invaluable for me during COVID-19, particularly as a parent of young kids who may need to take time off for caregiving.

Greg Ichneumon Brown

Greg, how have you been affected by COVID-19?

The biggest stress on our family in recent years hasn’t been COVID-19 but that I have spent the past three years dealing with a damaged spinal cord. The story is a long one. At my worst I could hardly walk through the house, was constantly in pain, and I was often falling down. In January 2019, I was finally properly diagnosed and I had spinal cord surgery. I’m still working on rehab and will be for at least another two years. 

While I focus on rehab and work, my wife put her consulting business on hold to juggle all the other pieces of our lives. We have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, so starting kindergarten has been a different experience than we were expecting. We’re also feeling risk averse due to the current condition of my body, so we’re trying to navigate a constantly shifting schedule of online pandemic kindergarten.

Automattic as a company, and as individual people, has been very supportive throughout our multi-year ordeal and that has continued with COVID-19. Working at a distributed company makes dealing with my disability much easier and allows me to be more productive. Just the day-to-day flexibility in my schedule can make a lot of things easier. Work often feels like a break from the other things I am dealing with, but when I can work has often been unpredictable. I am actually not sure how I could have kept working for the past four years while being at a non-distributed company.

Rob Landers

Rob, you live in the Netherlands. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you there?

When the pandemic hit, my son’s school closed and I moved my home office to the ground floor to be closer to my wife and son. I’m a night owl, and worked almost eastern US time zone hours before the pandemic. I started shifting my hours and taking more breaks in my day to help out more around the house. Then my partner caught COVID-19 and I ended up taking a couple weeks off to deal with that. Our neighbors were a godsend by leaving home-cooked meals outside the house for us, dropping off medication, and running other little errands for us. After we all recovered, I moved my office back upstairs to a dedicated room, my son’s school reopened, and things went almost back to normal, except for a healthy work-life balance.

Before COVID-19, we would travel once a month to various places around Europe. Often it would be a computer-free time to spend with family. However, after COVID-19 hit, this was pretty much impossible. From a work-life perspective, it shifted to a “little too much work” and it took a while before I realized that I needed to take a break from technology more often. Instead of traveling, we took to hiking in one of the nearby forests, often finding some awesome treasure like the Pyramide van Austerlitz.

Anna Elek

Anna, how have you been affected by COVID-19 in Germany?

I returned to Germany from personal travels following our last team meetup in Cartagena, Colombia the day that most non-essential businesses in my city — Berlin — were ordered to close. Contact bans were also soon announced, and we settled in for some tough months.

I spent the first weeks of the pandemic very uncertain about how I should be feeling. At a first glance, not that much had changed in my day-to-day life: my partner and I both work in the building we live in, our work setup and daily routines are quite socially distanced by default. Nonetheless, the stress of isolation, worry about family in a different country a thousand kilometers away and general uncertainty about basically everything took its toll. I realized I was working far more than usual (even though there was absolutely no pressure on me to do so). Work was the single thing that hadn’t changed at all, and I clung to that stability. I needed some time off pretty desperately — but I didn’t feel like there was a point, or any justification to take vacation to do, well, nothing.

I am very grateful that my then team lead proposed and arranged for some extra time off for the entire team: a coordinated series of Fridays off helped incredibly to counter this instinct not to take a break without a good reason, to ease the loads on parents on our team and to alleviate the overwhelming nature of the whole situation. I couldn’t travel or really go out much, but a few peaceful days of gaming, reading, and cooking (homemade pasta is an excellent shelter-in-place delicacy) made all the difference.

Robert Felty

Rob, how has COVID-19 changed your experience at work?

When the COVID-19 pandemic really got going in the spring of 2020 I was still working at a different company, going into the office most days. At that company we had several offices throughout North America and Europe, so we were already accustomed to distributed work; it was quite rare for me to have a meeting which included only people from my local office. However, after it was announced that all the offices were closing, we definitely noticed some shifts in behavior — probably the biggest one was that people finally started turning on their cameras during conference calls. I had been pushing others to do this for years, often turning my camera on in meetings with seven or eight others, all who did not have their video on. I had thought the experience would be so awkward that others would turn their video on, but it didn’t really work. Turning on video really makes people feel more connected, and also pay attention in meetings more. That was one positive effect of the switch to remote work. 

One big difference between Automattic and my last company was how socializing worked. Most socializing at my previous company was really only done in person — during lunch, coffee breaks, and the occasional office party. In meetings there was very little time spent on small talk. The pandemic definitely created a sense of loss of comradery in the company. At Automattic, the desire to connect with co-workers on a personal level in a remote-work environment has always been valued, and the employees have come up with many different ways to connect online — mostly through P2s (internal blogs) and Slack channels dedicated to certain topics or interest groups, like music, parenting, photography, etc. I am very happy to be working at one of the world’s best remote-work companies.

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