Experimentation and iteration lie at the heart of a lot of things we do at Buffer. If you've been following the Open Blog for some time, or even if you've just popped by (hey there!), you might notice that we reflect on remote work– a lot.
Our remote setup enables our distributed team to work wherever they're happiest and that freedom is a much-valued perk that Buffer teammates enjoy. Our employees feel trusted to be in control of their job, and for us, we enjoy less overhead and the benefit of hiring without the confines of geography.
We're always looking for new ways to improve the remote work experience for our distributed team and remote team meetups, which we call On-Sites, are proving to be invaluable supplements to our remote setup. It probably sounds a tad ironic at this point – to rely on On-Sites when we believe so strongly in remote work – but hear me out.
Why host remote team meetups if you're fully remote?
While we wouldn't trade the value of being a distributed team, it's hard to deny the value of face time for team morale and serendipitous connections. Nine annual retreats (and the thousands of hugs exchanged) have shown us exactly how precious our time spent together is, and prompted the idea for smaller remote team meetups.
While the People team continually experiments with ways to cultivate that sense of serendipity across timezones, there's no replacing the warmth of a real hug or the joy you get from watching a smile spread across someone's face and light up their eyes without the filter of a camera lens. Real human interaction with those that we spend our days collaborating and creating with is key to our remote team meetups.
As the team grows in size, annual retreats are increasingly focused on team culture and company-level strategy; in fact, one of our key retreat objectives is to maximize team bonding opportunities throughout retreat week. This leaves little time for heads-down collaboration within the team.
Furthermore, although our remote team is fully-equipped to work together across time and space throughout the year on both day-to-day tasks and high-level strategic planning, the sense of isolation that comes from waiting a whole year to meet your team face-to-face can make things more challenging than they have to be.
It's not that we can't have these high-level, strategic discussions remotely. Rather, it's the invigorating effect that the dedicated team meetups have that excites us and inspires us to carve out a space for the same collaboration in our day-to-day.
To gain that interpersonal connection that drives our every day work, On-Sites are our solution.
Our customer advocacy team at an on-site in Miami (2018).
What are On-Sites?
We introduced these in-person, work-focused team meetups in 2017 to supplement the annual retreat and haven't looked back. With the annual retreat happening in Q2 and On-Sites mostly planned for Q3 or Q4, we've found that there's enough face time to maintain that sense of connection between coworkers over the year.
On-sites carve out the space to be intentional about high-level matters each team/area wants to tackle. It's often easy to get carried away with the day-to-day – there's always one more email to reply to, one more expense report to clear, one more pull request to review; On-Sites give us that blocked off time to be fully present to each other. They give us the opportunity to work on foundational things that align us as a team and things that help make the day-to-day a touch smoother and more cogent.
How we design On-Sites
In my previous professional life as a teacher, I often designed lessons with the end in mind. What is the outcome I'd like to achieve here? This approach informs much of how we design On-Sites at Buffer. We begin with the intended outcomes of the remote team meetups and figure out the rest from there.
Outcomes such as who's attending and what the purpose of the On-Site is help crystallize further details such as where the On-Site is held and how long it will be. While we did not prescribe a fixed number of days for the On-Sites this year, many teams decided on 3 full work days bookended by 2 travel days. High-level vision and strategy discussions can be energizing and draining all at once and it feels like 3 days was just right for most teams to power through all the topics while managing their energies and getting some team bonding time in. This duration also preserves weekends for family time before and after this week-long business trip!
Once we had the broad details locked down, the rest of the details fell into place. We reviewed our learnings from mini-retreats in 2017 and introduced a few new guidelines to make planning a little smoother all around:
- For meal expenses, we defaulted to putting large charges on company credit cards and working out a per diem for each On-Site. The amount varied depending on which city the team was headed to as well as further details like whether breakfast was included in our lodging arrangements.
- Given the intensity of a 3-day 'hackweek' of sorts, we also strongly encouraged teams to search for lodging options that afforded everyone their own personal space at the end of the day. Although recommending a private bedroom and bathroom for each person limited options a fair bit, this guideline has generally been well-received! Breathing room at the end of a wild workday is always welcome.
- All remote team meetups had a main planner who collaborated with a People team member (that's me!) to make the event happen. The On-Site owner and I either co-planned the meetup or they planned the entire event on their own while I remained available to consult about key decisions along the way.
- We kept these remote team meetup discussions separate from the day-to-day by creating temporary Slack channels for each event. This made sure that On-Site specific decisions were attended to in their own space without disrupting the day-to-day discussion in teams (and vice versa!).
As with annual retreats, we made in-person attendance optional this year. Teammates may find travel challenging for a variety of reasons and some of these challenges could be overcome by taking the On-Site directly to those teammates (e.g. the Mobile team headed to Missouri to be closer to Jordan who had just come back from family leave, and the People/Finance team met in Portland where Nicole lives). When that was not an option, we experimented with variations of virtual and in-person meetings.
Here's what our On-Sites looked like in 2018
This year we tried every possible permutation of team meetups:
- 100% in-person (e.g. Data, People/Finance, Mobile, Analyze, Publish)
- Partially virtual, partially in-person (e.g. Advocacy, Marketing, Product, Core)
- 100% virtual (e.g. Executives)
Each of these had its merits and challenges, and we're learning as we go along. Here are some quick reflections on how each of these types of remote team meetups went:
Although these were tricky with some teammates flying a full day to be present at the On-Sites, meetups with full in-person attendance had arguably the smoothest experience once everyone had arrived and settled in. Groups either worked from a coworking space near the hotel, or in the case of the People/Finance team, worked out of the living room of a serviced apartment. Having everyone located in the same physical space made it easy to adapt the agenda as the days shaped up. Starting and ending the work day together also helped everyone feel fully involved in major decisions that were made or touched on.
On the other hand, expecting teammates to take a full week out of their lives to travel to (sometimes) faraway destinations for a 3-day meeting can be a tall order. It was especially challenging for folks who had to skip several timezones in order to do that – long-distance travel can be physically demanding and some teammates only fully acclimatized to the timezone changes towards the end of the week.
This also may not be the most inclusive option for teammates' who face more challenges around business travel or travel in general. This is something we are continually reflecting on.
Fully virtual On-Sites, like the Executives' hyper-focused 2-day series of Zoom calls, also went rather well with everyone located in the same virtual space. Much like the first option, having a clear start and end to the work discussions was helpful, and having everyone located in the same space, albeit virtual, made it easier to adjust to updates to the agenda.
A key learning we had from the very first People/Finance On-Site back in 2017 was the importance of determining what a workday might look like for virtual meetups like this. When you have people calling in from different timezones, the reasonable overlap can be quite small, and the agenda needs to be adjusted accordingly. For instance, as an APAC team member, it was quite difficult for me to attend the first 2017 People/Finance On-Site virtually as we have a 13- to 15-hour timezone difference across our team. The solution then was to fly me to a closer timezone to make the remote team meetup possible and it worked really well!
One thing that we could do a better job in for fully virtual meetups, though, is being mindful of the need for breaks. When everyone is located in the same physical space, it's easy to spot signs of fatigue on a teammate's face and it's also relatively straightforward to slip out of a meeting for a quick break. When you have a webcam focused on your face all-day, though, it can feel a little more difficult to slip out for a quick breather.
Partially virtual, mostly in-person
We worked with the partial model in a bid to accommodate each teammate's needs around time away from home and it's really the only possible model for teams with folks who are quite unable to travel. Just as companies with a partially remote workforce face challenges that fully remote teams escape, we found that this model had greater demands than the first two and called for a more deliberate and mindful approach.
For starters, being mindful of designating work hours that take multiple timezones into consideration is especially key to be considerate for teammates calling in from different regions. Teams that went with this model also had to navigate the tricky experience of spontaneous after-hour conversations that happen when the team is kicking back and relaxing. These tend to happen serendipitously and can be super fun! However, virtual teammates miss out on this vital benefit of the meetup. Ensuring that the virtual attendees feel involved in the whole On-Site experience is important.
Looking back, it felt like we were most-equipped to collaborate at maximum efficiency when the On-Site was fully virtual over video calls or when everyone was physically present in the same space for that week. Managing a partial in-person team experience, on the other hand, is something that's still quite new to us and we see much room for improvement there. It would be fantastic to learn from other companies who have grappled with meetups of this nature too.
Buffer teammates working together in person (one of the few times each year we're together IRL)
In true Buffer fashion, it's time to iterate
Looking ahead to 2019, here are some nascent reflections the People team has about the future of On-Sites:
1. How we can be more strategic with On-Site planning?
This year, most of the planning was undertaken by teammates or area leads who had to make things happen in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities. That's a lot of heavy lifting! We also found that working independently to plan these On-Sites led to some missed opportunities to streamline travel for some folks. (Our CTO, Dan, attended a grand total of three On-Sites this year! Thanks for your dedication, Dan!)
Next year, we intend to shift most of the logistics and planning responsibilities to the People team so each area lead can focus on setting the agenda and high-level objectives together for their team's meetup. With a birds-eye view of all the On-Sites that need to happen in 2019, the People team is toying with different ideas such as:
- Having an 'On-Site month/season' where all the remote team meetups happen around the same time and the day-to-day isn't disrupted
- Conversely, spacing out the On-Sites to alleviate the travel demands on those teammates that need to travel to two or more remote team meetups seems like a viable option as well.
2. What are our expectations around travel to remote team meetups?
This reflection mostly centers around questions of whether attendance is truly optional for all folks on the team. Is it, say, really an option for a teammate in a faraway timezone to attend one virtually? And does the immense value of having team leads present in person make virtual attendance a non-option for them? How optional are we willing to make On-Sites next year? We're still ruminating on these questions and it's hard to say for sure what we'll decide!
3. How can we be more mindful of the experience for teammates who cannot physically be present at On-Sites?
Regardless of where we land on the previous question, it remains a reality in our diverse team that some teammates will not be able to attend On-Sites. I see it as one of our key responsibilities on the People team to never stop thinking of ways we can increase the quality of the experience for virtual attendees of On-Sites. Whether it's introducing guidelines around asynchronous communication during that week, or providing equipment to encourage a more consistent or robust experience for virtual participants. There's plenty more we can do!
With so much to chew on, we're incredibly excited to start crafting the On-Site experience for the Buffer team next year. As always, candid feedback from the team on what went well and what needs improvement has been immensely valuable and we're grateful to folks for taking the time to share their thoughts.
Below is an article originally written by Pam Dodrill, the VP of Customer Support at PowerToFly Partner Zapier, and published on October 1, 2018. Go to Zapier's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
I'm excited to announce that I'm joining Zapier as VP of Customer Support. Ever since I saw my first Zapier alert in a former role, I've been curious about what the company is building. And as soon as I mentioned to friends and colleagues that I was in discussions for this role, they all had big reactions and told me how much they love what Zapier is doing with integrations and automation. I'm a huge fan and I'm eager to join this fast-growing company and 100% remote team.
The approach this company takes to its customers, employees and overall business impresses me beyond measure. The company culture and values were the first thing I looked at and "Empathy, no Ego" along with "Default to Action" and "Default to Transparency" jumped out at me. This is how I work. During my interview process, I found real-life examples of these values at work, stories that validated what the company was advertising.
The other thing that struck me is how Zapier pushes normal limits. I mean - 100% remote team, not just support team, but the whole team? Anyone that knows me, knows I've been advocating for remote teams for well over a decade - probably more like 2 if I'm honest. This company knows how to do it right - AND they share their lessons learned.
In general, Zapier is a company that wants to learn best practices and then gets focused on how to improve those practices and makes them work for their individual company needs. This is so much better than just running through a prescribed playbook. I'm elated to apply this approach while leading Zapier's Support team.
During my research, I also ran across this post about why everyone at Zapier participates in All Hands Support - written by Wade Foster (one of Zapier's co-founders) that lists 6 really good reasons why this is important. For me, it puts empathy for the customer at the center of how we do business and it guarantees the Support team gets the respect they deserve.
As I met with different members of the Support team I realized there is an inherent passion for Customer Support and an esprit d'coeur that only exists in organizations that are genuinely excited about what they are doing. But what struck me most is they get it. They know what they want to do. They don't need me to come in and tell them what to do or do it for them. They just need help harvesting and implementing their ideas through hyper-growth while maintaining a fabulous customer experience.
It's really hard to pick a favorite thing I learned while interviewing, but I think I'd pick this: Keep Support Weird. I was told on numerous occasions that it is very important to the team, as they choose a new leader, to find someone who will help Keep Support Weird. After stumbling into a Support role at the age of 16 and turning it into a career, I understand this completely. It's one of those things that if I have to explain it, you won't understand.
I feel so privileged to join this team. If you know what it means to Keep Support Weird, check out these jobs and join us.
Below is an article originally written by Emily Triplett Lentz, the Blog Editor and Content Strategy Lead at PowerToFly Partner Help Scout, and published on November 28, 2018. Go to Help Scout's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
Remote work certainly has its advantages: broader talent pools, uninterrupted blocks of time for deep-focus work, and the quality of life that can come with the freedom to work wherever you choose.
But like every setup, there are pros and cons — and the downsides aren't what companies who are afraid of remote work or flexible schedules think they are. Employers who don't want to let people work from home often think, How can I be sure they're working if I can't see them? What if they spend their whole day on social media? and so on. But in reality, studies show productivity stays the same or increases when people work outside traditional office settings.
The real downsides to remote work are just amplified versions of problems that exist in co-located environments.
Remote teams excel at solving certain collaboration-related problems that co-located companies aren't confronted with as keenly — but that doesn't mean they're not there. The difference is that co-located companies don't have to solve for them because it's easier not to. (You can wing a lot of decision-making in an office environment, for example — just hop into a conference room and figure it out.) Since remote companies don't have that luxury, they've been forced to solve for the problems that accompany asynchronous communication.
Traditional companies can learn from some of these tools and processes that remote companies already have down and make their workplaces more collaborative and inclusive for everyone.
3 downsides of remote teams and what they can teach us
These issues affect every team who has to communicate asynchronously, or in ways other than sitting across from one another at the conference table. Here's how we address them at Help Scout.
1. Text-first communication can lead to breakdowns in understanding and productivity
Think of the last email chain or Slack conversation that spun out of control because the people involved were talking about different things, coming from different places, adding their own contexts, and so on.
Misunderstandings can happen with more frequency in workplace setups where face-to-face communication isn't the norm. And at least at first, it's tricky to identify the moment where it'd really be best to call time out; the instinct is to react and reply, only that makes the problem worse. Problems get blown out of proportion because we think so much faster than we type.
The way around it is to learn to pinpoint this situation the moment it starts, and either a) hop on a video chat, where you have the benefits of tone of voice and a little bit of body language to help you convey meaning, or b) walk away and pick it up later after your emotions aren't getting in the way of clear communication.
When your default communication is email or messaging, you are prone to missing out on additional context.
At Help Scout, we acknowledge this by encouraging people to "assume miscommunication over malice." We include that phrase in our employee onboarding — we tell new team members that if they ever feel like their integrity is being questioned, to assume it's a communication misfire, and not because their team member actually thinks they're bad at their job.
Assuming miscommunication over malice is especially helpful on a culturally diverse team. It helps to remember that the way people share concerns or feedback is often informed culturally, and critical feedback is rarely personal. (This is probably a huge part of why diverse teams have been proven to work better, because it's not just a homogenous group of folks patting each other on the back telling each other everything is "awesome.")
2. Remote, asynchronous teams require more proactive communication, structure and transparency
When you're collaborating asynchronously, it can create a situation where one stakeholder is constantly waiting for the other, with longer periods in between where work is just sitting there — and that can exacerbate any "us-versus-them" dynamics that might already exist between teams.
The antidote is to have rock-solid processes in place. On my team, for instance, we have a robust editorial process we manage via Trello: Once I'm good with a draft, it goes to a copyeditor, then it comes back to me, then I send it over to the design team, who codes it up in Github and puts it up on staging, then the author and I review it there, then there's usually some more back-and-forth … and then it can go live. It takes dependable tools and a tremendous amount of proactive communication to ship things on time.
Alternative workplace arrangements are not less work. Nothing is "set it and forget it." Help Scout's stack includes Confluence, Slack, Trello, Dropbox Paper, Google Docs, Zoom, Wistia, and a number of other tools we use to keep our team aligned.
We do our best to be relentlessly communicative and put everything in writing. It's not a bad habit for any kind of company, though, remote or not. No one ever complained because it was too easy to find the information they were looking for.
3. Remote work can be isolating
Remote work doesn't work for everyone — and that goes for people and companies. It's not an option for many kinds of businesses, and it doesn't work for every person, either. Occasionally, people new to remote working find out that it doesn't suit them. They feel alone; they get cabin fever (especially when they're in a different time zone than their team), and they realize it's just not for them and that they prefer going into a traditional office. And that's fine.
We try to hire people who thrive in remote settings, but we acknowledge that everyone is subject to those feelings of isolation, and we try to mitigate that in a number of ways:
- Semiannual company retreats, when the whole team meets up in person for a week.
- Video meetings (instead of phone calls) — we use Zoom for all our one-on-ones, team meetings, and company-wide town halls. For those who can't attend, we record them so they can watch at their convenience. (This is a good way to keep co-located companies aligned, too — record your meetings so whoever can't be there in person, for whatever reason, doesn't get left out of the loop.)
- Weekly video updates that keep the team informed about new feature releases, birthdays, and other company-wide news.
- "Troop Talks"— casual, monthly video chats the whole team is invited to. We've talked about how we practice self-care, songs we associate with a poignant memory, and all manner of topics that elicit these lovely stories that may never otherwise come up at work.
- Fika, inspired by the Swedish tradition of taking a little break to have coffee and pastries and visit with a friend. We use a Slack integration called Donut to help us randomly pair people from different teams, and then we come together face-to-face to talk about life, kids, pets, languages, where they're from, everything. (Fika is great. I think every company should fika, remote or not!)
Obviously, co-located teams don't struggle with these things as much — there are plenty of organic moments for team-building built in when you're all together. But what good remote companies do really well is offer a lot of different ways for team members to build relationships, and that's where co-located companies can sometimes fall short.
Team happy hours can be fun, for example, but they're not always everyone's jam — they can feel exclusionary to non-drinkers, people with families, and others. So if you host happy hours, consider also hosting team breakfasts, or planning short midday offsites, lunch-and-learns, and other team-building activities so that inclusive company culture becomes the default.
The future of work
The need for better asynchronous communication is increasingly relevant to all kinds of teams. The way things are heading, we're seeing more and more nontraditional work arrangements — not just remote work, but flexible schedules, the need for communicating across cultures and time zones, and so on.
Even if you work in an office, chances are you work with contractors, offshore teams, freelancers, and other collaborators who aren't onsite. And at some point, we're all remote: We've all missed the proverbial memo when we were out of the office for one reason or another.
The problems remote workers have — feeling out of the loop, unclear documentation and so on — those happen in every office.
Thinking about how remote and asynchronous teams collaborate successfully, despite not always being face to face, and applying those solutions to all kinds of workplaces, can help foster better communication and belonging everywhere.
Meet Harry Klein, VP of Customer Success at Appsembler
Studies show that diverse teams are not only more efficient, but they perform better and produce higher-quality work. The same can be said about companies who empower their team members to work remotely from wherever they are!
One of our newest partners, experiential learning platform Appsembler, believes wholly in the value of both. Harry Klein, Appsembler's VP of Customer Success, leads a 100% distributed, diverse team, capitalizing on their unique backgrounds and experiences in order to best serve customers - and he's hiring!
Harry gave us the inside scoop on how you can score your next role with Appsembler - click here to see all of their open roles!
What traits are you looking for in your next team member?
Harry Klein: I'm looking for someone who is a lifelong learner with high levels of empathy for customers and teammates. This person has the ability to successfully work remotely, has some experience with online learning, and perhaps some experience with SaaS or technology.
Why do women and underrepresented talent feel they can thrive at your company?
HK: At Appsembler, we recognize and value the power that having multiple perspectives adds to our team, products, services, and strategy. We believe this has been key to our success and is one of our core values.
Our culture. We are lifelong learners who want to have a positive impact on the world through learning. We pride ourselves on our high levels of empathy, striving to treat people the way we would like to be treated. We believe in the well-being of our teammates and encourage everyone to take restorative time off.
Commitment. We have women and underrepresented talent on the team already and our executive team is committed to further broadening our diversity of perspectives.
What do you love most about working at Appsembler?
HK: Our culture. This is the most supportive, empathetic, talented, interesting, and fun team I've ever been a part of. This is made even more remarkable by the fact that we are fully distributed. We have differences of opinion, as one does in any organization, but they are always respectful, focused on building a platform and helping customers, and never personal.
What does the interview process at your company look like and how long does it usually take?
HK: Interviews are conducted via video conferencing because Appsembler is a 100% distributed team.
The process generally includes an initial interview with the hiring manager; interviews with team members from; other departments, and a final interview with the CEO.
What's a hot tip about your interview process that PowerToFly members can know?
HK: Appsembler offers a free trial of our SaaS platform. Anyone interested in joining Appsembler should sign up for one and spend some time with the platform.