Design and development consultancy Lincoln Loop has built a truly unique workplace -- fully distributed, committed to employee freedom, trust and radical transparency. They also happen to be a recognized leader in the Django community, a feat accomplished in large part by the flexibility and efficiency afforded by their commitment to remote work.
Pajamas talked to designer Joni Trythall about what it's like working at Lincoln Loop and how their distributed team powers such a successful company.
What does Lincoln Loop do and what do you do there?
Lincoln Loop is a consultancy specializing in web design and development based on Python and Django. While we do a lot of neat stuff like scaling large sites and custom application development, we also build a lot of complex interfaces primary for publishing companies and startups.
My role within this lovely shop is one of a general, go-to, “get-stuff-done” designer. Throughout the course of a couple weeks I can be doing anything from designing holiday cards, ordering swag for conferences, documenting our front-end experiments on CodePen, sketching up some interfaces, to tackling some GitHub issues.
I also find myself doing a lot of community outreach. In February we sponsored and hosted the very first Philadelphia CodePen meetup and the second one is in the works for June. I also recently conducted a workshop for the Philly Women in Tech Summit and am developing an SVG course for Girl Develop It Philly. I’m passionate about teaching and giving back to the tech community and am lucky enough to work at a place like Lincoln Loop where everyone else values these things as well.
How many people work at Lincoln Loop and how geographically distributed are you?
There are currently twelve Loopers and a few freelancers periodically, distributed all over the world, with larger concentrations in the United States and Europe. A lot of us travel frequently and get to live in interesting, exotic places because we have so much flexibility.
Prior to your current job, had you worked remotely before?
Sort of, but not in a true team setting. I was doing a lot of freelance writing, things like development tutorials for SitePoint and Designmodo, and other little design “odd jobs” where I worked alone and didn’t really have anyone to answer to. So while I actually really enjoyed this slightly bizarre time in my career, I ultimately wanted to be part of something with other people. It’s always nice, especially in design, to be able to bounce ideas off others and talk through challenges together.
When did you start working remotely? What initially drew you to life outside an office?
I decided to start learning about web design and development after I had my son three and a half years ago. I had stopped working at my office job and quickly became frustrated without a creative outlet. So I set out to teach myself how to use Illustrator, which fairly quickly led to me writing and illustrating a couple of children’s books. When the time came to get these graphics on the web I sort of fell face first into the world of HTML, CSS, SVG, and haven’t looked back since. It was just so remarkable to me how much I could learn and work without even leaving my house.
Child care wasn’t really an option at the time, and I lived in a very isolated part of the country. So I kept studying from home when I could find little blocks of free time. I read tutorials as I made dinner and when my son napped. I began to write about everything I learned which eventually led to freelance projects. I was only able to take on these projects because of how flexible it all was. There was no way I could commit to designated hours in an office each day, but I could definitely get bits of work done on some evenings and weekends. At this point my son is in preschool and I have transitioned into a full-time schedule, but the flexibility has come to be something we really depend on; seems like you can never quite anticipate what each day will bring with a toddler running around!
Lincoln Loop isn't just distributed; as a company you've also talked a lot about how you're asynchronous. Can you talk about what that means and how that helps the company function as a remote organization?
Lincoln Loop uses a lot of passive communication tools. An example of this would be Ginger, which is a sort of bulletin board system for long burning ideas or anything that doesn’t require immediate attention.
We don’t need a lot of heavy handed meetings to coordinate something and strive for no one person to be a bottleneck to completing work. There is not always a lot of overlap between all the different time zones and family stuff comes up for everyone, which all means you might not actually talk to the team for a couple days. You never really know what each day will bring, both at work and home, so it’s important to make everything you do transparent as you go. That way, everyone knows what’s going on without you needing to deliver a daily “in-person” update.
Lincoln Loop is full of really talented people that also enjoy advancing their skills and keeping up with current technologies (as much as anyone can!). This can sometimes look like disconnection from the team, when really we are just super deep into researching something. We eventually come back and show everyone else what we learned and write a blog post about it.
There’s also just a lot of trust. Everyone has confidence in everyone else’s abilities and trust that they will get the job done in the best way they know how.
As a team, what are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?
Lincoln’s Loop’s biggest challenge, in my opinion, is not being anchored to any one local community. I think this makes it difficult to flesh out a solid identity and sense of true “belonging.” Defining and solidifying a company culture has been a struggle, from what I can see, because we are made up of people from drastically different cultures and beliefs and we don’t get a lot of opportunities to meet in person. It’s really difficult to truly get of sense of someone’s personality without having actually met. It seems to more easily lead to misunderstandings when it’s hard to get a sense of how a message is being delivered. An example of this is that the Americans are often viewed as ambiguous in their critique as it usually contains a lot of pleasantries, even when it’s actually intended to be negative. We are not as direct in our delivery, I suppose.
You never really know what each day will bring, both at work and home, so it’s important to make everything you do transparent as you go.
In contrast though, the team is very active in the Django community. Lincoln Loop sponsors a lot of Django events and regularly contributes to open source projects. Pete and Yann even wrote a book, High Performance Django, last year! We’ve also recently been working towards carving out a name for ourselves in the front-end world, so hopefully those efforts are equally successful.
The biggest thing we have done to tackle these challenges is acknowledge them. Being constantly aware of the potential problems that can arise is a motivation to be proactive in this regard. It’s really easy to just put your head down and work when you can’t go get lunch with your co-workers, so we make it a point to create opportunities to talk to each other. You never need a super official reason to chat over Hangouts!
How about the benefits of remote work? What has being a distributed company provided Lincoln Loop that you wouldn't have if you operated from a central location?
Once you experience the flexibility that working from home affords, it’s really difficult to both imagine how you would ever go back to a formal office setting if you had to, as well as makes you wonder how you ever survived an office to begin with. Being so distributed allows us to hire some of the best talent from a much larger pool (the world!) than restricting this search to a very specific location.
I personally wouldn’t be able to work at Lincoln Loop if it weren’t remote and flexible. There would be a lot more moms in tech, in my opinion, if more companies were comfortable operating this way, so I think there is definitely a diversity factor there than can’t be ignored.
What are some of the things Lincoln Loop does to keep everyone feeling connected?
A lot of people at Lincoln Loop have daily Google Hangout calls and we seek out opportunities to send groups of employees to conferences. It’s not uncommon to see “Anyone want coffee?” in Slack followed by a Hangouts link. We also have a yearly retreat where the core team gets together to meet for a week of R&R. Last year everyone met in Mexico and did some serious surfing.
Martin and I both have our own food blogs that we adore working on. It’s nice to talk about difficult ingredients and especially successful kitchen experiments. It helps to break up all the shop talk every once in a while. Pete, Brian, Marco, and Martin are also big into biking and have been known to dominate the Slack channel with talk of bikes and trails. Yann is an experienced surfer and I’ve heard some unconfirmed stories that he may have saved Mike’s life on the shores of Mexico last year. I think it’s knowing and talking about stuff like this that helps us all feel connected, more so than collaborating on actual work projects.
Ultimately though, it’s a conscious, daily effort to make sure everyone feels connected. Having personal conversations and reaching out to each other doesn’t really come naturally when you don’t see the people day in and day out, so we all have to make it a point to check in with each other and have interest in each other lives. It’s so important for everyone to feel supported and like they are part of something, and it all takes a bit more work than it would if we were under the same roof.
What sort of culture does your company have? Is it more difficult to build cohesive culture in a distributed, asynchronous environment?
That’s a tough one. We believe in autonomy and giving people freedom to make the decisions they feel are right. We have a lot of say in how we use our time and what sort of projects we take on. Good examples of this are some of the internal efforts we’ve had, like Flexbox Fridays, BotBot.me, and our IRC Cheat Sheet, where teams of people cared about solving particular problems and carved out time to do it. This does require some level of experience or sense of ownership and acceptance that sometimes we won’t get it right.
It’s really easy to just put your head down and work when you can’t go get lunch with your co-workers, so we make it a point to create opportunities to talk to each other. You never need a super official reason to chat over Hangouts!
When I asked the team about this they mentioned that they feel Lincoln Loop has a very strong company culture, but one that is difficult to put into words for newcomers. It takes years to truly understand it, but there are a number of written guidelines that we try to follow to help foster this environment, such as a code of conduct and core values. These core values revolve around transparency, autonomy, decision by consensus, honesty, and sustainability.
Describe your personal work environment.
I try to make my workspace as comfortable and adorable as possible. I feel much more inspired when I am surrounded by things that make me happy and are nice to look at. My office is in a loft on the top floor of the house. I have strings of white lights, a framed print of a pig wearing a suit, and an “SVG is Bananas” mug; you know, the essentials.
How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?
This is so tricky and certainly not something I am even close to mastering. It took me months to stop randomly deciding to organize my sock drawer. When you’re home there is just so much other stuff that needs to get done and you can’t just shut the door and leave it behind for the day, it just sits there staring at you. Having an office on a separate floor from everything else has helped a lot.
It’s interesting because even family members outside of the house have trouble understanding that, yes, I am actually doing real work at home during these hours. I’ve learned to call people back after work when they want to chat about completely non-work related things in the middle of the day.
So while I continue to eliminate distractions, I still take full advantage of the flexibility working at Lincoln Loop allows. Just last week I was easily able to attend a “Breakfast with Mom” event at my son’s preschool on a weekday. When I got the invitation there was really no question about whether or not I could make it work, which is such a precious thing.
How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?
I would be lying if I said I had this figured out. I’ve definitely gotten better at eliminating distraction over the past six months or so, but honestly I still struggle with it regularly. Sometimes it’s just too nice out and I work from the patio, though of course I end up wandering off and watering flowers. I also find that I can be really nosey in terms of what my neighbors are up to if I sit near a window (What are they having delivered today?! Why are they still home?!).
For me, efficiency isn’t necessarily related to getting things done quickly, but rather how much mileage you can get from an accomplishment. If you want to learn something new to add to your skillset, you can write about it as you go, producing both resource articles and marketing materials. To me, that’s really efficient. I wrote a book last year, Pocket Guide to Writing SVG. I began writing about SVG as a learned it, which produced countless tutorials and the book. So while I continue to learn something new every week about SVG, this initial introduction stretched out to consume over a year’s time. It wasn’t quick, but I consider this period and everything I produced to be an efficient use of my time and efficient project.
What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?
I’m the first one to admit I’m terrible with Trello. We have a couple Trello boards and while I love the idea of it I just don’t find myself remembering to check it. It’s just not on my radar and I definitely need to get better about that. So, the three tools that we all use consistently are Slack, Ginger, and Google Hangouts. Through these we can achieve active, passive, and real-time communication. We all start the day in Slack with “Good Morning”s and talk of anything pressing, but as the day goes on we jot less pressing issues and ideas down in Ginger or ping someone in Slack knowing that they probably won’t see it for a while.
In Ginger we have a “DevLogs” section. The first one to work each day will post a hopefully hilarious gif to get the discussion started, and then everyone will list out what they hope to accomplish that day. It helps get a sense of what everyone is working on and whether or not they are free or need an extra hand. We also have a ¯\(ツ)/¯ section where we just post random thoughts or things we came across on the web that were especially funny or neat.
It’s not uncommon to see “Anyone want coffee?” in Slack followed by a Hangouts link.
Also, I realize this isn’t a tool, but I couldn’t work remotely without also being active (in person) in the Philly tech community. I make it a point to regularly attend and conduct presentations and meet other ladies in similar situations. I realized fairly quickly once I began working remotely that I truly need this type of interaction with people and doing things like teaching allows me to have the best of both worlds in a sense.
What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?
I would suggest spending a lot of time considering the type of culture you want to foster and how. Working remotely, while absolutely fantastic, is also absolutely difficult and potentially isolating. This can be especially true for beginners to the field or people new to the remote working environment.
Being completely remote seems like it would be an important aspiration as well. Having a central brick and mortar office with a few remote employee could probably lead to a lot of inherent disconnect and hard feelings; I know I would be super bummed if my coworkers were off at happy hour together and I was stuck at home in my pajamas talking to myself! Though of course this means you will have to work even harder at that whole establishing a culture thing.
Help people develop good habits right from the beginning, because it can be hard to override certain behaviors. For example, encourage people to get out of the house on occasion or maybe even consider something like a coworking space if their personality may not immediately embrace the working from home lifestyle.
Finally, never get frustrated if someone needs to step away from their computer for a bit. If someone needs to go for a bike ride to think, or bake remarkable gluten free, vegan banana bread, they will be so much more productive while they are away and able to really think. They will also probably come back totally rejuvenated and ready to tackle the day’s challenges ... with a piece of that banana bread in hand.