If your job entails any form of social media management, you’ll know that Buffer is one of the most important players in the space today. Founded by a group of European ex-pats in San Francisco, it is behind an app of the same name which allows people to manage accounts across social networks, by providing the means for a user to schedule posts to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Less well-known is the fact that, while Buffer is headquartered in San Francisco, very few of its staff actually work there. The vast majority of its team is spread around the globe, working remotely.
While the 2012 decision to use a remote team came about as much out of necessity as it did choice, it’s clearly worked for Buffer. Sure it might not be a billion-dollar unicorn, but it employs more than 70 people and a couple of years ago was valued at US$65-million.
If Buffer was like most companies, establishing how it’s managed that would rely heavily on conjecture. But because Buffer has a culture of transparency, we actually know quite a bit about why it made the decision to use remote teams, how it built a vibrant company culture despite that, and what tools it uses to keep it functional.
Choosing a path
When Buffer was a couple of years old and employed five or six people, CEO and co-founder Joel Gascoigne faced a serious choice. Should he bring the entire team, which at that stage was distributed, into a single office or should he allow it to keep working remotely?
As Gascoigne explains in a video from 2014, he got a piece of valuable advice from Performable founder David Cancel (now chief product officer at Hubspot) on that front.
“The key thing he said to me,” Gascoigne explains, “was ‘make sure you choose one of the two and don’t try and do halfway in the middle. Don’t try and have 70, 80, 85 percent of people in the office and then have a couple of people dotted around remotely”.
This approach, he says, creates a situation where there’s no obvious advantage that people working in the office have over their remote colleagues.
But, he says, you can’t expect your remote team to work in the same way as they would if everyone was in an office.
“When you decide to be a distributed team and you work remotely, you work in a very different way,” Gascoigne explains.
“Even if you have an office and you have a few people in there, if you’re embracing a distributed team […] you work very differently”.
One of the most important differences between remote and office workers is that the former have to be incredibly self-motivated, high-productivity individuals. When you don’t have an office to go into daily, it can be all too easy to slip into bad habits and end up behind on work.
Buffer knows this, which is why it prefers to hire people who have experience as freelancers or working at startups. It also has a 45 day contract period, during which employees are treated as contract workers and have regular one-on-ones with Gascoigne.
Once they’ve made it through this “Bootcamp”, they come onboard as full-time employees.
Culture is everything
When your team is scattered around the globe, having a clear company culture is even more important than it is when everyone’s in the same office.
Early on in its journey, Buffer set out 10 values that its employees should strive for.
As part of living those values, Buffer also has a number of initiatives aimed at ensuring everyone feels like part of a
Examples of this include equipping new recruits with fitness trackers and encouraging them to share the collected data with their colleagues, regular company retreats, and frequent company-wide virtual meetings.
And if Buffer is known for anything it’s transparency. Among the things it’s made public are its salaries, equity, metrics, and weekly improvements.
As Gascoigne explains in an official blog post: “Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork”.
That transparency even extends to how much staff know about each other. At company retreats, every Buffer employee is encouraged to share personal stories about themselves. According to the company’s Nicole Miller, telling these stories “can reveal a variety of things that might not otherwise come up in casual conversation”.
Using the right tools is pivotal
Of course, all of this would be impossible (or at least a lot more difficult) if Buffer didn’t have the right tools at its disposal.
But even the best tech out there couldn’t give Buffer everything it needed to run its remote teams effectively. That’s why it built Buffer HQ – a tool that helps it organise itself and “create visibility for the roles people have by mapping everything going on within Buffer”.
Go your own way
Perhaps the most important lesson to take from Buffer’s remote working strategy, is that it’s had to evolve according to the needs of the company. While it may have been inspired by other companies, a simple cut-and-paste job would never have worked. So if you’re trying to figure out your own remote employee strategy, make sure it’s yours and not someone else’s.