What Buffer Has to Teach Us About Engaging An All-Remote Workforce

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Jul 13, 2016
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
Editor’s note: The following article is part of the ongoing effort by the new, nonprofit OpenWork to inspire companies to continuously improve how, when, and where work is done for the mutual benefit of employees and employers. Note also that the article was authored prior to Buffer’s recent financial problems.

While many companies struggle with managing a remote team, Buffer has created a company culture and recruitment process that keeps its fully-distributed workforce engaged and connected.

 Buffer is a one-stop social media tool that allows users to schedule posts and monitor activity across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest. The number of registered users at the 5-year-old firm grew to more than 3 million last year, and while its team stood at just 16 employees two years ago, it’s now approaching 100.

(Note: Buffer just recently laid off 10 people, 11% of its workforce. The company’s financial situation is explained in detail in a blog post on the site.)

The company earns its fair share of media coverage for the strength of the platform and its solid growth, but if you’ve read about Buffer, it was likely regarding its buzzy, innovative company practices and policies. For example, when the founders announced in December 2013 that its core Buffer-Valuesvalue “Default to Transparency” would extend to making all employee salaries public, the move set the tech news space ablaze and, instead of scaring away prospective employees, tripled the number of resumes they received the following month.

The company has operated as a fully-distributed team with no headquarters office for most of its existence, and as part of its “Live Smarter, Not Harder” value, Buffer employees are encouraged to work wherever suits them. Before the layoff, employees could be found in 11 time zones around the globe, from San Francisco to Singapore and from Stockholm to South Africa.

Keeping a remote team motivated, engaged and productive can be challenging at any company, and even more so for a fully distributed team at a fast-growing startup. How does Buffer do it? These five tactical approaches keep the Buffer team together:

1. Find the right tools. If you can’t find them, build them.

It’s no surprise that a digital company would embrace digital technology to help connect employees and manage workflows, but for Buffer’s far-flung team this means tapping into myriad online resources (and creating new ones when necessary) that not only ensure work gets done, but also help the team bond through achieving personal goals.

To monitor accomplishments and provide encouragement throughout the day, the team tracks their “Dones” (i.e. completed to-dos) on an internal dashboard accessible to the entire team. This allows all members to be aware of everyone’s projects, while inviting interaction and collaboration through likes and comments. Even personal growth goals — “Focus on Self-Improvement” is another core value — get a boost when employees post about non-work “Dones” like “Went to yoga for the third time this week.”

Meanwhile, interest-specific channels on the increasingly popular messaging platform Slack help employees connect on personal projects and interests. “We have different Slack rooms related to health, work areas and books. There is always someone reading these rooms and willing to help if they can,” says Octavio Aburto, a member of Buffer’s support team (or “happiness team,” as Buffer calls it) currently working from Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

For remote teams, virtual face-time is important for both business-critical discussions and to keep the team connected and engaged over long distances. Since its launch, Buffer has cycled through a few video chat platforms, with Zoom their current preferred tool for large virtual meetings and Google Hangouts for small groups.

The takeaway for other companies currently managing remote teams, or contemplating the possibility of doing so, is to experiment with technology and tools to find the right mix that works for their needs. And don’t forget about employees’ desire to connect to one another on an emotional, as well as occupational, level. Working apart doesn’t mean you have to work alone.

2. Hire the right people.

Sifting through more than 3,000 resumes a month for a handful of positions at an extremely non-traditional company is no easy feat, but a dedication to finding employees who are a great fit is the backbone of what makes Buffer’s distributed team work. Once selected, employees enjoy a 45-day contract period known as boot camp.

Arielle Tannenbaum, a Buffer community champion working from Philadelphia points out, “We’re thinking of renaming boot camp, because it’s not quite as grueling as what you might think.”

Instead of screaming drill sergeants and endless pushups, Buffer boot camp includes a thorough onboarding process and the assigning of three “buddies”: a leader buddy who’s an experienced Buffer team member; a culture buddy who advises on all things culture-related; and a role buddy who helps guide the new hire’s role within the team. “Because we’re a particular sort of culture, it’s fun for a lot of us, but it’s not always the right place for some people,” says Tannenbaum. “So boot camp is an opportunity for both sides: for us to see if the person will be a good fit for our culture and for them to see if they enjoy it.”

Roughly 70% of boot camp participants are hired, and the process is completely transparent, meaning that while there’s some risk involved, all participants are completely informed before starting their Buffer boot camp. For Aburto, the benefits of the process are clear. “Even though we keep growing and growing, the core feeling remains. I think it speaks to the great care and attention that our people team has put in,” he says. “They review each application very carefully and bring in those people who are aligned with our culture and values.”

3. Make time for face time.

Approximately twice a year, the Buffer team packs up and heads out to an exciting destination for a week-long companywide retreat. Destinations have included Honolulu, Cape Town, South AfricaSydney, Australia and Reykjavik, Iceland. This year’s planned retreat in Germany was cancelled because of the company’s financial problems.

With the price tag nearing $400,000 for the Hawaii outing, not to mention the logistics involved in getting people from all over the globe to a single location for a week, you’d expect big business objectives to be part of the agenda. The fact is, while serious work is certainly done during Buffer retreat week, intangible benefits like having team members meet in person for the first time, diving into company growth and values discussions, and exploring new surroundings together often trumps big business milestones. “We had a brilliant experience because we really get to connect with people, especially in a fast-growing environment where you never see most of your colleagues,” says Aburto about the Hawaii retreat.

Regardless of the accessibility of video chat technology, Buffer believes real face time and in-person connection is incredibly valuable for remote employees, and much of the actual value is derived from non-work moments.

4. Foster a culture of trust.

“Default to transparency” has been a Buffer core value almost from the start, and it extends from salaries and equity to revenue and diversity. For Buffer, this isn’t transparency for transparency’s sake, but as Co-Founder Joel Gascoigne writes on his blog, “Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork.”

A culture of trust was a key attribute that attracted Rodolphe Dutel, an operations lead based in Paris, to Buffer. While revealing every employee’s salary might make for splashy headlines, Dutel sees it as a relief. “There’s no pressure to know, Do they have stock in the company? because every employee has stock. There’s no pressure about, Does that employee make more money? because we know what everyone makes.”

For Buffer, transparency didn’t happen all at once. It was a process of trial and error — examining what wasn’t completely transparent to the public or employees and asking themselves why it wasn’t. While full transparency isn’t appropriate for every kind of business, most employers can help foster trust among employees by defaulting to openness and honesty around at least a portion of company decision-making and processes.

5. Don’t be afraid to change.

All those tools that Buffer uses to communicate and connect with remote employees? They’ve changed them multiple times; here’s an older version. Radical transparency? According to Co-Founder Leo Widrich, it was a complete failure when it came to creating a transparent feedback system. Their much-ballyhooed salary formula? They’ve recently revised it.

When embracing new and innovative approaches in the workplace, some are destined to fail and others will most certainly require revision. That doesn’t mean embracing innovation is wrong; it simply means that in a rapidly changing world, all efforts must be open to change.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
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