Remote working: behind the scenes @Lullabot
Today, we’re taking you on a journey. What would happen, if you were to be hired at Lullabot, a 100% distributed company? How would you get hired as a remote worker? What would your day look like? How would you interact with your co-workers? How would you be managed? What does it look like behind the scenes? Matt (CEO & Co-Founder), Esther (Senior HR Generalist) and Ellie (Head of Marketing) kindly gave us some answers as to how they make Lullabot work. Buckle up, we’re going in.
Lullabot® is a digital strategy, design and open-source development company, that was founded in the US in 2006 by Matt Westgate and Jeff Robbins, and was among the first in the DrupalTM community. At the time, they were about 20 developers helping build an open-source and free content management software (CMS). Drupal’s founder, Dries, was living in Belgium so they had to interact with him in a distributed way from day one. Matt and Jeff seized the opportunity to grow a business using an open-source software. Today, they’re 53 ‘Lullabots’ working from the US, Canada, India, the UK and Spain. They built websites for Harvard, the Grammy Awards and Tesla, just for reference. That’s what you’re looking for. Now, let’s get hired.
1/ Getting in
You’re looking for Lullabot’s job offers on job boards like FlexJobs and weworkremotely.com. JazzHR, an application tracking system, posts their tech positions on many job boards and Lullabot is well-known in the Drupal community, so you might find yourself facing some tough competition. You send your resume along with some of your work.
A few days later, you receive an email: they’re hooked, they loved your work and want to meet with you. Obviously a meeting in person is not to be expected. You first meet with Esther through a 15 minutes screening phone call, just to check if Lullabot and you are on the same page regarding daily remote work, salary and availability. All good? Great. Then you go through 2 to 3 interviews with the ‘hiring team’ dedicated to your position. This team is composed of a variety of people depending on the position--the manager(s) you’re going to work directly with, Matt, Esther, and the COO or CTO. What’s unusual is that one of these interviews is a ‘hangout interview’. You feel that they’re genuinely trying to get to know you on a personal level to see if you are a good fit for each other and Lullabot’s values. Also, checking your skills is just as important to them as checking if you’re good and comfortable communicating through different channels (video, chat, calls, emails…). You need to show that you’ve successfully worked remotely before, or that you have a very strong desire to do so, and most importantly, that you have a plan to be good at it. This reminds you of the hiring process of that company a friend told you about: Four Kitchens!
A few days later, you get a call. They’ve reached a collaborative decision: they want you on board. Yay!
Your first 90 days are your adjustment and training period. You receive a welcome email from Esther or Kris (HR Coordinator & Bookkeeper) with all the little tips and tricks they can hook you up with from the start: communication tools and best practices, Slack channels’ descriptions...Oh, that’s nice, they assigned you a ‘Lullabuddy’. She/he works on the same projects as you and will be your sheepdog during these few first weeks, making sure you don’t feel lost. There’s also this weird thing, the BambooHR checklist. It’s not about saving pandas, it’s for you to request time off, to track your personal budget and to access a checklist with due dates on your projects so that you can manage your time. Wait, did they say personal budget? Yes. You get an annual $2,750 general education and professional development budget, to spend on anything you think useful to help you do your best work.
However, you still have a loooot of questions, and you don’t want to bother your Lullabuddy with obvious set up questions...That’s what the online handbook is for. It lists best practices and answers to many questions people usually ask when setting up.
Now, you’re in the matrix and ready to go. So, how do you actually work with people?
It’s all about communication channels. You’ll mostly use Slack and its dedicated channels for communicating about the projects and discussing issues or tasks. Yammer, an enterprise social network, is used for more informal and social discussions, to help create and maintain a social link with your coworkers. Each team defines its needs and habits regarding communication. Ellie from Marketing told you that she attends on average 3 meetings a day. Gosh, 3 meetings a day? That sounds a lot like the usual waste of time you’ve experienced at your previous agency…Except that your coworkers feel they accomplish a lot more in a day than at a more conventional company. That’s what this woman, Kristin, said in this article you read (here) about working at a remote company, InVision. Why is that? Ellie explains that she’s less interrupted and distracted than she used to be in a physical office, as nobody stops at her desk to chit-chat. What about notifications? She simply turns them off whenever she needs to focus.
"I feel like I’m 10 times more productive when working remotely.” Ellie
Hmm, you wonder how people can talk to each other through video without interrupting one another, especially when we know how bad video and conference call systems usually are. You find out that all meetings are run by a designated moderator who makes sure that everyone gets a say, that all subjects are addressed, and that everyone is respectful of each other’s time and opinion. For instance they developed the habit of saying ‘tada’ whenever they’re done talking, so that everyone knows the floor is open. However, for important decisions like planning and strategy, they get everyone in one room. That’s their annual retreat. It’s also an opportunity to have that face time that is so invaluable for the sake of general camaraderie and relationship building.
©Lullabot, 2017 team retreat
What you find pretty cool is the international aspect of the teams. Weekly calls can be challenging because of the different time zones, but they seem to make it work. Esther says that the bonus aspect of a wholly distributed company is that "sky is the limit": having employees throughout the world that are so well connected and encouraged to share with each other fosters different ideas.
“We aren't limited to just localized thinking.” Esther
What about dealing with conflict? If you feel tensions, you can contact Esther or your manager to discuss it. Anytime. Also, HR keeps an eye on Yammer and Slack to make sure that no one could take offense in anything, as it is hard to know someone’s intention when reading a sentence on a screen. If needed, HR can delete a comment and talk to the person about it, but conflict seems to be pretty rare. Probably because they are told that “vulnerability is ok, and that you need to celebrate failures and mistakes as well”. Less pressure to be perfect then. Right, we’ll see about that.
©Lullabot team, 2017 retreat
Wait. If you’re part of a dev team, how did you get to talk to Esther and Ellie about their experience at Lullabot? It happens that you were in their group for last Friday’s call, one of Lullabot’s teambuilding and communication practices. As you’ve learned, nothing is left to chance. Matt explained that they made some mistakes trying to figure out how to communicate, how to build a solid and trustful team, how to put serendipity and personality in a distributed company. Here’s what they came up with:
"We need to be intentional, proactive and deliberate in our communication.” Matt
It seems that because communication and team building are so intentional, you come to know each other pretty well. Ellie even says she feels like she knows her coworkers much better in 6 months here than after 1 year at her previous office job. You interact all together weekly, so you get to know everybody in the company, on a personal note too. And not just the people you work with on a daily basis. Even though it seems odd at first to chat over the phone with complete strangers. Kind of like a professional speed dating. But in group. And not just about work.
“I really enjoy my coworkers, I enjoy going to work everyday even though it’s walking through my living room. They motivate me.” Ellie
However, getting people to interact together is one thing. Getting them to actually collaborate, stick together and belong is a whole other story. What connect Lullabots together the most are their core values: Inspire & empower, Be human, Invent & innovate, Collaborate openly, Kick ass and Have fun. True or not, according to Ellie Lullabot is “not a typical corporate environment because you don’t compete with other people, you collaborate”. And Esther says that “working at a company like Lullabot that values its employees immensely, and not just the bottom line, gives [her] a lot of flexibility in [her] job.” She’s encouraged to go the extra mile for employees. Like sending flowers on hire-date anniversaries for instance. She feels free to make decisions that benefit the company and all the people working there. And it all starts from the top.
©Lullabot's Yammies, 2017 - honoring the best Yammer posts of the year
When you ask Matt about his views on leadership, he starts by saying that becoming a dad changed his vision of relationships and helped in leadership: now he lets go of some things that he used to keep in control. He’s also trying to create an ‘ownership culture’, where people feel involved and more in control of their decisions. One of the first words that pops up during your conversation is "trust”, that he contrasts with micromanagement.
“People are best when you treat them like adults. You can’t micromanage in a remote company. The default mode has to be trust and transparency.” Matt
For example, a team went to pitch a client last week. In a 45-minutes presentation, Matt talked for 3 short minutes. His team did the rest. This is not a natural behavior for him, he’s trying hard, everyday, to let others lead. “I don’t have to solve all the problems, I just need to frame the questions” he says.
©Lullabot, Matt Westgate (founder, CEO) and Jeff Robbins (founder)
Another aspect of leadership at Lullabot that you find peculiar is the way everything is so open and transparent. At least most of it. At first, you thought that the ‘collaborate openly’ value written on the website was another nice word that doesn’t really mean anything. But then you took part in a monthly Town Hall where directors were actually answering questions as honestly as they could. Ellie had told you that “directors don’t hide anything”, that “they’re very transparent, in the good and in the bad”, but you had to see it for yourself. And then you heard about that story.
In 2012, they started to run out of money, and as the two founders didn’t have much experience in business they were not good at managing Lullabot’s cash flow. So they stopped getting paid and tried to develop business, but it wasn’t enough. Matt saw an Oprah Winfrey show on how to quit smoking. The first step was to tell everyone that you needed to quit. So that’s what he did. The annual retreat was coming up, so they started it by having 2 people from the team teach everyone the basics of accounting. Then he showed the balance sheet and the income statement to get everybody in the organization to understand how they get paid, where the money goes…One year later, they had 3 months of wages in the bank to create sustainability. Who knew that Oprah’s wisdom could be so powerful when applied to business?!
6/ Coming through
One thing that’s been bugging you for a while though is how you know if you’re doing good work when you are so independent?
You Slack-message Esther who starts talking about Carl. What now? Carl is how they call the employee annual reviews, that last for about an hour and a half. Esther will send you questions about one week prior to you review, focusing on two main topics:
- How are you doing at your job?
- How is Lullabot doing for you?
Lullabot is more focused on task completion than work time, so as long as you do a good job and get done what you’re supposed to get done, you’re good to go. A major concern they’re still struggling with is progression in the company. As for now, most people usually stay for 5+ years, and because they don’t leave, there is not much progression that is offered. They’re working on it, trying to find ways to help people progress without creating new management positions. New job titles? Schooling? Certifications? It’s a work in progress.
And last but not least, as it’s your first time working remotely, you wonder how balancing your work and personal life works. That’s where it gets tricky. In that area as well, you’re the boss. You make your own schedule, and you decide how you want to advance your projects. Ellie says that this is one of the things she enjoys the most in working remotely: she can create her own environment, where she feels the most creative and efficient, “instead of sitting in a dull cubicle with beige walls.”
“Working from home gives me, and all employees, flexibility to balance work and life.” Esther
A lot of Lullabot’s benefits encourage work life balance (parental leave, Fitbit fitness club, TripIt Pro). Managers use a tracking device to make sure no one is overworking the due 40h/week, and if so, they encourage the person to take a day off, or work out whatever the problem is. Esther also sends out holiday packages with gifts to encourage relaxation and work life balance.