Balancing the Grind with Haifa Sekkouah, Experience Lead at Zendesk

Haifa Sekkouah is an Experience Lead at customer service software company Zendesk, where she works on ensuring consistency and an optimal experience for users.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I came into UX design after a career change from neuroscience & research, into advertising & graphic design. Initially, these look completely unrelated, but what brought them together, interestingly, was dabbling in code.

At the National Trauma Research Institute where I was working at the time, I was playing around with our website for ways to visually and interactively represent conglomerates of medical data, by tacking together java applets (I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they were somehow doing what I wanted them to do).

My interest in simplifying complex medical topics and research findings into digestible nuggets, lead me to information design and then graphic design. A decade or so forward and I am in the field of helping companies simplify and organise their flows and applications, balancing between user-required, and market innovating features.

At Zendesk my role tacks together a multi-product suite, to ensure consistency and optimal experience for a user, no matter which of our products they are interacting with, and irrespective of whether they switch devices or platforms. Their experience must be easy, productive, and consistent. Bonus points for making it look slick and making the user feel happy.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Early mornings are usually prioritised for calls with other designers, product managers or engineers from our North American offices as they are nearing the end of their workday. We touch base to collaborate on overlapping features or check in on project overlaps.

For example, I am collaborating with our designer in Montreal around some information architecture work where we are going to be placing features and controls of two different products into the same admin centre, so the relationships and differences between settings, needs to be really clear to us so we can represent that to the user.

Once the call is done, I normally make some notes to myself and action a couple of things before making a nice big cup of coffee and stepping out into the backyard to check in on the chickens. I look for some new shoots of grass and clover, then pick some for them to eat.

A little later in the mornings is when stand-ups and team check-ins happen locally. Usually, this is usually a huddle in the office but works just as well over Zoom from home these days.

Before COVID, we liked to use the “Gallery” view over zoom, during our APAC calls, between the Melbourne and Singapore design teams – even if we all were only in one of two meeting rooms in either office. This allowed us to continue looking at presentations on our screens AND face each other.

It’s more personal and direct that way, and it’s nice to see everyone in full view and not as small bodies gathered in a room. Now, since COVID, we just continue that tradition. After standup is then normally a good time to get into some deeper thinking, planning, documentation or design exploration, or I may need to check-in specifically with my PMs or another designer on some design updates.

Since COVID, lunchtimes are even more of a relished opportunity to get up from my desk, so I try and cook most days. Doing something away from my screen intermittently throughout the day is essential to help me focus better when I am back at my desk, and by the time I’m due back, a nice sit-down with a hot drink is usually a welcome reward from the washing up.

The afternoons tend to be better for quiet work and iteration on designs, or if in the office, a jam session with a partner designer. By late afternoon, I may check in to go through the day’s changes with my boss or product manager, and then make a list of priorities for the next day. I will break for a few hours to spend time with the family, have dinner and relax a little before jumping into a cross-team sync or 1:1 with a designer in the European timezone.

My evenings are prioritised for calls to cross-collaborate and check-in with product designers in our Copenhagen or Dublin offices to align and update them with the week’s priorities and design direction.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Some of these colleagues I interact with regularly, I have not yet met in person, and have been ‘virtual’ collaborations from day one. COVID has not really changed the way we work at Zendesk too much, it has always been a flexible and cross-region collaborative environment. Because of the geographical spread of our products and teams, we tend to have more fluid timetables that allow us to accommodate international collaboration on a daily basis.

It means that we don’t necessarily fit everything into a 9-5, nor do we even try. Our teamwork is spread out over a larger timeframe (say, 6am-10pm) but it’s never straight hours. By working this way, we can connect over the timezones more naturally, and easily, and have built great relationships this way.

An added benefit is that our local lives can also continue on a little smoother, where the time in lieu over the course of the day can be used to do the 9-5 things most people struggle to juggle, like parent-teacher interviews, school drop-offs, specialist appointments.

I feel we are also helping our local society function better by being able to work around those who do not have the luxury of a more fluid schedule, reducing the strain on peak traffic, or lunch hours. As a full-time working parent, I definitely would prefer to work flexibly over six days, than rigidly over five. It helps me accommodate others who can’t, and be more considerate to those around me.

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4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

This is an interesting question, as this definition has and is changing since COVID-19, as I suspect it is for many others too.

Before the lockdowns, work-life balance looked to be more about being able to have a personal life that was able to exist and evolve, around work; enabling me to have something “outside work” that was substantial enough to grow and nurture, while the main goal was to continue professional and career aspirations as unhindered as possible.

I say that aloud now with a little bit of shame, as more recently, work-life balance is now looking more like the acknowledgement that the family life is indeed bigger and more important than the professional life, and that work was actually a means to support the family life, and not the other way around.

I am still formulating this new definition. And it might not be COVID at play, but something that needs to be redefined at every life stage. Either way, it would be a great discussion to have in professional circles once the lockdown eases.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Being nimble. I mean, yes, have a routine; yes, have schedules – they are the guardrails. But you never see someone walking along a path only by clinging to the side rails. You run, you walk, you bike down that path, and furthermore you change pace, direction, and swerve in and out.

This is what your days, heck, life is really like. The behaviour of being alert and aware of the part of the path you are on at that moment, and being aware of everything going on around you, so you can be nimble and take the best next step forward for the present time.

This is in contrast to robotically living your days against a strict routine – or walking along that path by holding tight against the guardrail with your eyes closed.

Listen, hear, watch, see, smell, anticipate, interact. Do all of that at the present moment as you walk. Don’t rely on habits to automate your behaviours. We are not robots. The best skill in life is being nimble. Get all the sensory inputs in, make the best judgement for the NOW, and take the best next step.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Obviously TED talks are great for perspective and learning something new they have a winning formula that makes every minute I invest in watching them, worth the entertainment, engagement and learning value.

I listen to them when I feel like I’m too inwardly focused, and need a breath of fresh air or perspective. Sadhguru is the best of this kind of listening. It’s instant calm, perspective and a dash of humour. I always grow from his talks.

On the written side, frankie magazine and The New Yorker are two of my favourite reads also. I really prefer to get off a screen in my spare time, so paperback books and magazines are the go-to for me.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Interact with plants, animals and family. I like to do something for each one, for the plants, it might be fertilising, clipping, repotting, or dusting their leaves; giving the chickens one treat every day – grated carrot, or lift a rock for them (the bugs underneath).

Also baking something for the kids, driving out and picking up a much loved treat like bubble cup, or hanging with them in their room for a bit- just talking, or them showing me things they find funny on youtube or playing a match of Mario kart together.

My elderly mother also lives with me, so the evenings are great on the armchairs together, reading side by side, and chatting in between,- you’ll laugh but we are currently learning string theory together and the concept of simultaneous time and parallel universes. You know, as you do when you’re 70.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Someone in a similar situation as myself. I’d like to learn how other people manage the same circumstances and see what I can improve in this scenario in similar circumstances. That or someone in a completely different demographic – just to get a different perspective of life.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Again there is no right or wrong answer here; the balance just means being able to uphold and maintain the ratio you’ve set for yourself. I’ve realised that the ratio is different for everyone, and it may involve numerous things. What is that ratio for you, and what does it involve?

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.