There are dozens if not hundreds of companies that promise to help you manage social media. One of those companies, Buffer, has managed to stand out from the pack for an unusual reason: its work practices and culture.
When I mentioned to a few people that I'd be interviewing Joel Gascoigne, Buffer's founder and CEO, their responses varied. Some mentioned the product—"Oh, I use that all the time"—while others mentioned their famous workplace transparency—"Did you know they release their salaries online?"
But my favorite was this one: "They sound awesome. I want to live like them."
So I set about trying to answer that. If not quite living Gascoigne's life, could I document for ReadWrite's readers how to work like him and his colleagues?
Sharing Buffer's Success
As it happens, I spoke to Gascoigne on the eve of the company's announcement that Buffer had acquired Respond.ly, expanding it from social media sharing to customer service. It's just the latest sign of Buffer's success.
Under Gascoigne, Buffer has been an excellent narrator of its own victories and struggles—Buffer's fastidious commitment to transparency makes its company blog read like a self-published business case study. Here's what I learned.
Your Best Team May Not Be Where You Are
Buffer has experienced massive growth over the past year. It now has 70 employees around the globe, up from 29 a year ago. Distributed workforces are becoming more of an accepted practice. Distinct from simply working from home and checking in to a centralised office or splitting time between workplace and residence, distributed companies like Buffer have employees across continents. It's literally miles away from the traditional team sharing an egalitarian, open-plan sea of desks that's popular in most startups.
There are many reasons why distributed workforces are advantageous. There's the obvious ones like cultural and linguistic diversity and the "always open" scenario of multiple time zones. But there's also the opportunity to recruit top talent from all over the world, whether in Baltimore, Bangladesh, or Berlin.
It means employees have the option of working anywhere with Wi-Fi, be it a coffee shop, beach, or mountaintop.
Meeting The Distributed Challenge
So many voices to be heard
While the nomadic lifestyle has many merits, it also has a number of challenges. You'll need stellar communication to ensure that a workforce is able to operate as well as it would in a physical office.
Buffer uses a range of platforms to keep its' employees communicating like Slack and Zoom. Google Hangouts and Sqwiggle are also efficient ways to chat without the need for emails or phone calls. Don't forget to accommodate everyone in their different time zones: If you have employees in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, someone's going to be miserable no matter when you schedule a call. Fairness means rotating the burden—and paying attention to time zones.
Make Rewards Meaningful
Rethink perks. Buffer isn't the only company to use job titles like Happiness Hero. But how do you define happiness? Is it the thrill of a zany costume party or a delicious catered lunch? Or is it when staff feel appreciated, communicate effectively, and get the opportunity to grow in a workplace?
A pet-friendly workplace is good—but real perks require work.
"We want staff to live their best life, which we reflect in our mission statement," says Gascoigne. Easier said than done. Buffer offers unlimited paid vacation days—a perk that's as much about accounting tricks as staff benefits, since employers don't have to record accrued vacation on their books as an obligation, and taking any vacation time now requires approval from a manager and engenders scrutiny from colleagues.
Sure enough, employees at Buffer saw through the policy and didn't take time off. The company had to introduce \$1,000 bonuses for staff to encourage them to make use of their time off. Another key change: Gascoigne and his cofounder, Leo Widrich, started taking vacations, which set a positive example for employees.
Even a small, bootstrapped startup can benefit from ensuring that staff take proper breaks and find interesting ways to reward staff that actually mean something to them. And it helps to set an example from the beginning—a mistake Gascoigne and Widrich made by not taking vacations.
Buffer has also made group getaways an institution, Gascoigne says: "We have two Buffer Retreats per year, where we gather the whole team in a single location. We spend a week working together and also do activities like sightseeing, boating and jet-skiing. We've been to retreats in places like Lake Tahoe, Sydney, Thailand, Cape Town, and Iceland."
Share Ideas And Failures
Buffer decided early on to document its mission statement, work practices, and experiments. One such trial was a slightly odd journey into self-management. But Buffer also exposed its own failings, like a major security breach in 2014. It also broadcasts employee salaries and Buffer's corporate finances.
I was curious if this constant sharing had negative consequences.
Gascoigne said that one program with sharing feedback failed because Buffer's team didn't take its distributed nature into account.
"The problem was that due to timezones, other people were able to read the feedback before the intended staff member," he said. The idea was scrapped after a couple of months.
Still, when done right, Buffer's style of transparency can also lead to a greater community following as other people relate to your failures.
Growth With Grace
Buffer's latest post about its acquisition of Respond.ly could read as an etiquette guide on how to be a nice-guy acquirer. Buffer and Respond.ly built up a relationship over time, which started with a simple phone call. Buffer then sought professional advice on whether Respond.ly's features were something they should build or buy. Gascoigne and his team decided to go with a product which they felt aligned with their own ethos.
With a rapidly growing team, Buffer now has the challenge of whether its practices can be sustainable in a larger sphere. Will Buffer employees continue meticulously blogging about each progression and transgression? Will they be able to do team retreats with hundreds of employees? Will policies like unpaid vacation time require more rigid rules over time?
There's not one answer to these questions, nor will an answer stay right over time. The important thing is that Buffer keeps learning—and keeps sharing. So should you.