By Hailley Griffis
Two years ago, our already fully remote team of then 50 people decided to close down our only remaining tie to the traditional workforce, a small office in San Francisco. Here’s why we decided to be a remote company in the first place, how it’s going for us, and what’s next for a company with no office.
First, let’s look at how things have unravelled at Buffer. We’re a social media management platform. Our company was originally started out of our CEO Joel’s bedroom in Birmingham, UK, in late 2010. A year later, he and two co-founders had flown to San Francisco seeking funding and were invited to join Angel Pad, a startup incubator. By the end of 2011, they had raised $400,000 in angel funding and soon thereafter were kicked out of the U.S. as their visas had expired.
This is really the point where remote working started at Buffer. Joel and his co-founders flew to Hong Kong to continue working, now with the Angel funding. As the funding was primarily necessary for hiring new people, they continued hiring even though they weren’t in the U.S. The result was that they hired people all over the world.
By early 2013, the team had acquired the proper visas to return to the U.S. and had been working in San Francisco together. There were a total of four people in San Francisco at the time, from the Buffer team of nine. At this point, the decision was made that a small office would be a good investment to be used when teammates spent time there and for future all team retreat meeting places.
There was never a point where Buffer employees were all required to work from the office. It was still primarily a remote company, just with a supporting office. This was done after getting advice from the team at Basecamp about making there be no advantage to be in the office, and no disadvantage to not being in the office. Communication still happened primarily online and not in person.
By late 2015, we were 50 people and the office was no longer being used frequently. We’d hired our team remotely and the two pockets in the world with the most Buffer employees in them were New York and London. We made the decision to close down our office completely.
Two years after closing down the office, we’ve had two international team retreats and we’re still operating as a fully distributed team with 72 people in over 45 cities around the world.
How do we know everyone is working?
One of the questions we get most about having an entirely remote team touches on whether or not we know our employees are really working throughout the day, which is completely understandable when most organisations are coming from an environment where work is only done in an office. We can confirm that Buffer employees are definitely working, though.
Everyone at Buffer has to deliver on their goals according to what needs each team has. Their output is a sign of their work and consistent output increases trust with managers. If someone weren’t hitting their goals it would affect their team and their manager would know about it.
Hiring at Buffer is also done with an eye toward trust, autonomy, and responsibility. We can specifically look for those qualities in interviews by being conscious of if the interviewee shows up on time, are prepared, are comfortable communicating via email, and whether they do their pre-hire projects in a timely manner.
There’s a final element here: it is a huge privilege to be able to work remotely from any part of the world, and our team is super grateful for this opportunity and joined Buffer wanting a remote-work lifestyle.
What works, what doesn’t and what’s next
So how’s all of this been going for us at Buffer? There are some major benefits, a few real challenges, and exciting things on the horizon.
Working remotely is a huge part of our company culture at Buffer. We want our team to be free to choose the place on earth where they feel happiest and most productive. We have teammates that stay at home with their kids, or who travel and work from an RV. This freedom to choose where to live and work has both brought us incredible teammates from around the world, and given us a naturally self-motivated team.
Another huge benefit to remote work for Buffer is the ability to have our customer advocacy team and our engineering team in various time zones. From Vancouver to Sri Lanka, we nearly always have someone online for when a customer might need help. The main reason this is important for us is that it’s a part of our vision at Buffer to set the bar for high quality customer service and being able to respond to people quickly has been a major advantage there.
On the flip side, there are absolutely challenges to being fully distributed. One is that people can feel quite isolated if they’re in a time zone that doesn’t have as many teammates in it, or just from working alone all day. We work on this constantly. A few things that have been working for us recently are scheduling times when teammates can all jump on a video chat and interact, and setting up pair calls for teammates to be connected to someone else on the team every week.
Another challenge we face is that synchronous work is the norm and it’s something we’re actively trying to move away from. A big one for us here is using a synchronous chat tool that encourages instant responses and being online constantly to reply to messages. We try to move away from this by using tools like Discourse to create a space for asynchronous work, where regardless of a person’s location, work and collaboration can continue to happen.
To borrow from our CEO: “Our distributed team setup at Buffer is a result of our vision to create a workplace of the future and around our value to live and work smarter.”
We’re currently trying to reach a level at Buffer where our fully remote team with nomadic team members continues productively no matter the location of our teammates. This requires moving away from synchronous tools and focusing on a new way to work as a team.
We haven’t fully figured it out yet, although we’ve made progress in moving away from synchronous meetings, spending less time on chat tools, and working with individual teams to be as asynchronous as possible.
- The post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: Buffer’s all-hands meeting, May 2016, © Buffer. Not on a Creative Commons licence. All rights reserved.
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