Courtney Seiter is a writer, editor and inclusivity catalyst at Buffer, focusing on the intersection of workplace culture and inclusion. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Fast Company, Lifehacker, Inc. and more. On the side, she’s the co-founder of Girls to the Moon, a company that produces events designed to build confidence in girls age 10-14.
Hey y’all, I’m Courtney. You got the not British one from Buffer, clearly American. Turing was nice enough to fly me in from the U.S., from Tennessee, to be here today. And what an honor, thank you all so much for having me, can’t wait to a donate some computers to that wonderful cause. Just really excited to be here. So yeah, I work at Buffer, we’re about five years old now and we’ve been lucky enough to be able to develop in a little bit of a unique way for a U.S. company and maybe for a UK company as well. In that we are fully remote and distributed all around the world. So, it’s one of the many weird, interesting, radical some people say things we do with culture. So, I would love to tell y’all about some of those experiments and specifically focus on the remote aspect today a little bit.
Okay, this famous clicker, I’ve heard about it. We’re going to get it. There we go. Okay, so at first it might help to know a little bit about what Buffer is. We are a software-as-a-service social media platform that’s also a little bit of an experiment in the way we work today. As I mentioned, we’re all around the world. We are 85 people spread across many continents most continents and we have two distinct halves of a vision. On the one product side, we aspire to give people a greater voice on social media and we do that through tools that help you to post, schedule, optimize, amplify your messages on all the social media platforms that you know and love. On the other side of our mission, we are devoted to basically evolving the way work happens, to creating a workplace of the future. We do that through our experimentation and things like self-management, remote work, distributed teams, other fun stuff.
We view both of these elements as really inextricably intertwined. You can’t really have one without the other in our mind. A great product is going to come from a diverse, engaged team. And you can’t build a great culture until you have a product to work with, something that’s good enough that somebody would want to pay for, would want to support you for. Otherwise it’s all sort of a philosophical thought exercise. So, we try to work on both of these elements every single day, but we’re definitely aware that this is a little bit unusual and that the vast majority of companies out there just kind of focus on that product part, making your product or service the best that it can possibly be. It’s a tried-and-true formula it’s worked for many, many years and many dollars earned, so why would we bother to focus on work culture? We think it’s because work is evolving and that’s a conversation that we really are excited to be part of.
The first generation to ever not know life without broadband internet, without cell phones, without social media, they’re going to work now and they expect connection in ways that previous generations wouldn’t have even dreamed. To vastly over generalize, Buffer is a pretty millennial company. Both our founders are in that age generation, somewhere between 1980 and 2000 birthday, that’s sort of the Millennial age range. And the vast majority of our team at the moment is millennial; we are working on getting more age diversity, is something I think is important. But yeah, as a result of that, we’ve got a lot of people who expect to be able to connect, to be able to have meetings anywhere in the world, to be able to work anywhere in the world. It’s totally doable in ways that it wasn’t even just a couple of years ago. The tools that we use are evolving really fast and it’s exciting to be sort of like part of that future.
Right now we’re not quite there, work is a little bit broken at the moment. Only 13% of people around the world say that they feel engaged at work and this is from a Gallup poll 2013, so maybe like more people are feeling engaged now, but that stat really blew me away especially when thinking about this sort of escalating perks arms race that’s happening in technology. The amenities, the walls of snacks and cereals and all the fun things you can do, like play ping pong or take a nap in the nap room. How are these things not engaging us? How are we not creating an engaged workforce when we have all these wonderful things? Well I think it’s because happiness and engagement aren’t quite the same thing when it comes to work. Gallup, who has studied this phenomenon pretty much every year for quite a while, says that the biggest indicator of whether you have an engaged workforce is whether they find meaning in their work. So it’s not really about perks; perks can help sort of put a band-aid over a culture that’s a little bit broken, but the core of it is that you have to understand what you’re doing and why, you have to find that meaning. In that way we were really lucky at Buffer because we are a remote team, we don’t have anywhere to put the ping-pong table so we had to figure out what perks actually work, what people really want at work and how to give it to them.
So what do people want at work? Across the world, there are a few differences, but generally we want the same thing. The way we work, we want to be in a well-managed office where we have expectations that are clearly defined and we know what’s happening within our organization. Job role, we want to know that we can achieve success in what we’re doing, we want to be set up to achieve. Equality and feeling valued, we all want the same opportunities. We want to know that what’s available to us is available to everyone else on the team. We want to know that the work we’re doing makes a difference in someone’s life and we feel that value from it.
Okay, so those are simple things, not easy things, there are things that organizations can spend a lifetime working on, and we probably will at Buffer, but these particular things are the ones that I want to focus on today a little bit, purpose, flexibility, trust, and inclusion, and how we work on each of those. And why they’re important in the work world in the first place. Did I skip one? No, I think that’s good. Okay, purpose. We want to know that what we’re doing matters. We want to work with companies that are aligned with our values. This is from a Deloitte survey again of Millennials, we’ll talk about Millennials a lot today, 56% of them won’t even think about working for you if they don’t feel like your values line up with theirs. Fifty-five percent say they’re strongly guided by their own values as they make work decisions throughout the day.So purpose is something that’s hugely important. I think I read somewhere that like people, generally speaking, would work even if they weren’t paid. As long as they’re feeling that purpose, as long as they’re feeling that motivation of being part of something bigger than themselves, it’s really important.
Flexibility, obviously, we’re very into that being a remote team. More than ever, we want to be in control of our workplace because we’re able to be more in control of our workplace than ever before. You’ve got laptops, which means your office comes home with you, whether you like it or not. So even if you have a physical location, you probably are doing a little bit of remote work just by opening your laptop when you get home, I assume most of you work from laptops that may be erroneous. But yeah, so Millennials are looking for not just enough leisure time to have activities outside of work, they’re also looking for flexible work locations, ability to work from a coffee shop once in a while, and flexible hours to do things like have a life, do a side project, have time with kids, have time with people in your family. All this stuff is more accessible than ever before. Back one.
Finally — well, no, wait, not finally — the penultimate one is trust. How well do you trust what’s going on in your team? Do you have all the information you need to know what’s going on in your organization? Edelman did this cool survey where you will find the UK in the not trusted area, but towards the upper end at 57% and the U.S., where I am, is not too much better in the 60s. So there’s a lot of work to be done to create workplaces where people feel like they can trust management, they can trust their team. In the same survey, folks were asked what we could do to increase trust and the biggest answer by far was transparent and open work practices. So talk a lot about transparency, but just one to think on transparency is probably going to be the biggest driver of that trust creation. Inclusion is a topic that’s really near and dear to my heart. And we’re talking about it a lot, but we’re not seeing a lot of results yet. I really liked the stat that 55% of Millennials say they hear a lot about diversity at work, but they don’t see those same opportunities, they don’t feel that things are equal for all. So we’re doing a lot of talking about it, a little less as far as making progress on it so far.
Okay, so just wanted to share first of all a big caveat, the way we do things at Buffer is not “the way”. We definitely don’t have all the answers, we’ve made so many mistakes along the way, we did a whole year of self-management before we determined that that was not working for us. Like Rand, we’ve also had layoffs. We definitely don’t have all the answers to work, but we’re able to experiment, we want to keep experimenting so I’ll share with you some of the things that we are working on now if any that can help you, that would be great.
All right: we work on purpose through values. These are our 10 values that pretty much are the lens through which we view the world, through which we make every decision that we make as a company. They determine how we hire, they determine what feature we build, they determine every word of every email to our customers. We try our best to make them not just words on a piece of paper, but something we absolutely live by and turn to often. We’re definitely not the only ones with values, you can look at companies like Zappos, Whole Foods, Patagonia, they’ve been great examples for us and inspirations as far as building values that really work. I’ll tell you a little bit about how these came about, it’s much simpler than you would think to build values. Our CEO, Joel, sent around an online survey when we were like maybe 7 or so people, and said, “What words, what phrases describe Buffer to you?” And 7 of the 10 values that you see here came from that little exercise really early on. So what I get from that is that the culture was already there, it just took putting a name to it, being deliberate about saying this is something we want to foster, this is something we want to be engaged with, and we want to write down exactly what it is so we can develop it in the way that we want to develop it.
Obviously here to talk about remote work, this is our team right now, this is all the all the time zones that are represented and where we all are in the world. I’m not quite in my right spot, says I’m in Nashville when I’m clearly here, but yeah. So this is a tool that my teammate, Dan, made, it’s called timezone.io. If you happen to work on a global team, you can check it out for your own team. He basically built it because we needed something like this to help us know where we all were in the world. Remote work is something that also came really early in Buffer’s journey. Joel is from Birmingham. Leo, our co-founder, is from Austria, and they worked on Buffer all over the place. In the UK, in Tel Aviv, in Japan, and the experiences they had having working on Buffer in all these different spots, being part of the culture in different locations, sort of got embedded into Buffer’s DNA, they wanted all of us, thankfully, to be able to have the experience of traveling the world, working the place where we felt the happiest and most fulfilled. And as a result, we’ve seen a lot of wonderful benefits from being remote. Obviously we are location flexible you can be wherever you want to be. With all these time zones, it also creates a lot of opportunity to be time flexible, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to track hours when we’re so spread out across the globe and you might only have a couple of hours of overlap with someone that you work closely with.
So it leads to a trust level where we trust each teammate to do what they need to do to get their work done, then they can do whatever they want. And it also creates a kind of flexibility that’s a little bit hard to describe. We ask people to bring their whole selves to work at Buffer, so we want to know all of you, we want to know if you’re a mom or a dad and you want to take time off to play Legos with your kid, totally okay. We want to know what your background was like, if you’ve got experiences that can help us grow as a team, evolve our culture or design a better product. So flexibility is important to us, not just in location, or time and space, but in who you are, being able to bring all the elements of work with you. If you want to sail the Atlantic, totally fine we’ve had teammates do that. If you just want the afternoon to go see a movie, that’s fine too, self-care is important. So just kind of bringing in all those elements of who you are and accepting that there will be a place for you at Buffer with that.
Transparency is really important on a remote team and it’s one of our core values. The way we describe this value is default to transparency, which is really important. So unless there’s a reasonable explanation of why we wouldn’t share something, we default to sharing it. That means we share our product roadmap, our salary formula and all our individual salaries, our equity formula and all our equity amounts, we share our emails, which I’ll tell you a little bit more about later. When we raise funds, when we raise money, we share as much detail as we possibly can about that. And there are a couple reasons for being this transparent, the first obviously is that trust that we talked about a little bit earlier. If I am aware of everything that’s going on in the company, if I have the same information as our CEO and our co-founder, I’m able to understand the decisions that are made because I have the context behind them and I get on board a lot easier with decisions because I know exactly how we got there. It may not be the decision I would have made, but I still know the entire trail and that helps me to build trust in our leadership.
It’s also a really cool competitive advantage to be able to share everything we do, both internally and externally. Especially with a remote team, a lot of things can go and set unless you make it really really explicit. So when we share emails, when we share exactly what everyone on the team is working on, we’re able to build a great collaborative environment where I might hear just that missing piece of information I needed to put some dots together, form a new idea that could send us in a new direction. It’s also really great to be able to connect with our community, share everything that we’re doing in that way. We try to be as open as we can about every decision we make, not just internally but externally. We’ll share how we plan to build a new feature, we’ll put it on the blog. We’ll share how we plan to work through our family leave policy and when we do that, we get such a great amount of wisdom from our team and from people in our community. To be able to tap into that pool and learn exactly what a customer thinks could make this one feature just a little bit better, or to learn what someone in our community thinks might be a better policy for a family leave. These changes matter, like we are able to listen and respond and craft policy and craft features that are different, they’re better because we get that feedback from our community, because we tap into that.
It’s definitely scary, the scariest thing was probably sharing all our salaries online, we had no idea how that would go over. But we were really lucky to be able to be involved in a much bigger conversation around salary transparency, around salary equity across the board, and ended up being so successful in this conversation that we built this little tool. If you go to buffer.com/salary, you can see what you would make if you worked at Buffer based on our salary formula. So we want to keep going there, keep having that conversation it feels really important to us.
And in the same vein of transparency, we try really hard to create a diverse team and show how we’re working on creating a diverse team. This is a snapshot of our diversity dashboard, it’s at diversity.buffer.com. This is like a new version that we’re rolling out soon, so it’s a little prettier than what you’ll see if you happen to go there. But yeah, we try to build products that the global community would want and that means we really need a global team to get there. So we use our transparency to say, “Teammates if you would like to share information with us about demographic elements, like gender, race, ethnicity, whether you identify as LGBTQ, you’re welcome to do that to your level of comfort.” And then we’re able to sort of get aggregate data that shows how well we’re doing, are there viewpoints we’re missing? Are there perspectives we don’t have? Then we can actively look for those, they’re only going to make our product better if we’ve got a homogeneous team, our product is going to suffer as a result. So it’s really important that we keep going in that area to us.
Okay, so those are some of the high-level things. At this point people tend to have a lot of questions about just how we like work together day to day, how do you get things done when you’re spread out all over the globe? So I’ll take the remaining time, the 10 minutes or so, and talk with you about tools, tactics, strategies, like how we get worked on throughout the day. As I mentioned, totally remote, no office anywhere. We used to have an office in San Francisco, but no one really came so we ended up closing. Even when we had like 10 or 12 people who lived in San Francisco, once you become location independent, I think most people generally prefer to kind of make their own schedule, find their own workplaces. We will happily pay for co-working space for you wherever you are in the world, if that’s something that you feel will give you a healthier, happier work environment.
We’ve got people who work from cafes and coffee shops, co-working spaces, cars, trains, planes, like we really have seen people work from some astonishing locations. Our salary formula actually takes location into account, since we’re all over the world, we want to give each teammate the highest quality of life possible. So if you’re travelling around at Buffer, you might see your salary rise or fall depending on where you go in the world. An engineer in Cape Town would probably make a different salary than an engineer in London. We try to be generous here and provide people no matter where they are the best quality of life possible. But yeah it was really important to include that in our salary formula because we have so many different locations. And as I mentioned, we don’t really have any particular schedules, time zones are incredible in that they allow you to pretty much work around the world and never stop. So yeah, we aren’t able to focus on schedules so much. Some specific areas do a little bit, customer service especially kind of has to like make sure we’re getting back to customers and honoring their questions. But generally we like to provide you as much freedom as we possibly can.
Then we do get together sometimes, it’s hard to go too long without being face to face with teams. Sometimes you feel like this is just something that if we could get together and see each other face-to-face, we could really really hash it out quickly. You kind of lose the ability to be able to read facial expressions, to understand body language, so we do find it really important to get together once in a while. We’ll have meetups every like seven to nine months, our last one was in Hawaii in February, which was nice; very lucky. Yeah and we all get together, we’ll work together for a week and then do some like team bonding stuff on the weekends. Those weeks are generally really productive, that’s where we launched the first iteration of Buffer for business which is our enterprise sort of business and enterprise level product. But they tend to be productive in a different way, it’s not a matter of like code shipped for that week, it’s more about creating opportunity for those serendipitous moments that you kind of miss when you are remote. There’s not really the opportunity to just wander by the water cooler and chat with somebody, so getting that time together to be all in one place, to share ideas to share what’s going on in your world and to just hang out a little bit is really important.
Okay, so day to day, how do we even do this all around the world? Slack is our office, it’s the first place we go every day and I think there’s like five minutes it went down a couple of months ago and we had no idea what to do with ourselves, it’s like our lifeline. Zoom is our conference room, that’s the photo you see here. Zoom is really cool video conferencing software, that’s been the thing that’s really evolved the most in the time that I’ve been on Buffer, which is like two years, two and a half years. We started out doing we’ll Google Hangouts, we’ve done Skype, we used a tool called Squiggle for a while and Zoom really has changed everything for us up to all 85 of us can be in the same room together and have a video chat and it’s incredible great quality. So it’s really made such a huge difference in our day to day, this one tool. We do have transparent email, as I mentioned. We accomplish that by CCing or BCCing specific lists based on who you’re talking to. We’ll CC within Buffer internally, so if I send a marketing email, I’ll CC that list. If I’m talking to someone external, like when I was planning to come to the Turing Festival, I BCC’d a list around marketing to let them know what was going on.
It’s a ton of email, I won’t lie, it’s a lot of email. but we try and make it available to you, so you don’t have to look for it, basically. It’s there for you if you want to take the time to read everything that’s coming through, you probably won’t be super productive if you read every email that comes through, so one of the first big onboarding experiences of Buffer is setting up your email filter so that you’re getting the stuff that you need to see, not worrying about things you don’t want to see. I filter out most engineering emails, they’re not all that relevant to me. But if I wanted to see them, I could. And that’s what matters, like having that trust that’s inherent in the process, that’s what we do it for. And it does create for so much email that we try to move away from that a little bit. We use a tool called Discourse to help us out with team wide announcements, sort of bigger picture items. And then Trello is our preferred project management software, we use that a whole lot as well.
Working with time zones is so interesting. We had to decide early on we could view them as a challenge, or we could view them as a way to make ourselves awesome. So we try to view it in that way, we try to think about how incredible it is that we have people basically working around the clock to make sure our customers have a wonderful experience and a great turnaround time for all their questions. We try to think about it in the way that engineers are always shipping code, as soon as one person signs off, another teammate jumps on and she can check out what’s been done while she was away and start to work right away, add on to a project. So we really try to prioritize asynchronous work, things that we can do and share with one another in a way that doesn’t depend on time. So we use a tool mostly called Dropbox Paper for that. It’s pretty similar to a Google Doc, but it really helps us stay on the same page. I can start a document, someone else can add on to it later in the day once I’ve signed off with their notes, with their questions, with their edits. We just keep information flowing freely through that process.
We do need to get together fairly often and figure out how we can speak, what good times are for us to get together across the world, so we use timezone.io and every time zone for that. It’s a great way to sort of see what your overlap is, when a good time to get together might be, and once you’ve done all that legwork, we just pop something on to Calendly, it’s a lot easier than kind of doing the back and forth emails like, “Can you meet at this time? Can you meet at this time?” Calendly sort of lets you create your own schedule ahead of time. So we’re able to be really efficient, in terms of planning meetings once we’ve done all the global legwork of figuring out where everybody is.
How we connect. It’s so important for us, and probably anyone who’s doing remote work, to be able to have touch points throughout the week. It can be really isolating to work remotely unless you kind of plan in advance for that. So we have some things that are pretty traditional for any office, stand-ups and all hands. Stand-ups we do either weekly or daily, depending on your team, just a way to disseminate information, of course that’s via video chat, and then all hands will do those every couple of months and those are kind of higher-level, what’s happening with the company, all this happens through Zoom. It’s kind of the same way you would go into a conference room, we get there a little early and hang out and then we just have a video meeting. We can record them all, so if you’re not able to be there, you can check it out later. One-on-ones are our primary method of coaching and mentorship each teammate has a team lead that they meet with once a week, and we have a general script in those to focus on achievements, challenges, any blockers, and any feedback that needs to be given. So we try and create a framework where teammates can continuously grow.
Okay, these last two are a little bit weird and specific to your remote team. We have this concept called “pair calls”. Basically if you work within your own team remotely, there are a lot of people at the company you wouldn’t ever see otherwise, you wouldn’t ever speak to. So peer calls are like a round-robin kind of thing we do every week, you’re paired up with a new teammate, you have an opportunity to just chat about what’s going on either in your work life or your personal life, you can get a little accountability partner if there’s something you’re working on, like trying to exercise more, eat better. And it’s just a way of sort of reaching out to people, creating that serendipity that sometimes we are lacking not being able to speak with one another so frequently. And then retreats, as I mentioned, we do get together around the world. Something we’re trying now is like mini area retreats. So if we have a side product called Respond that focuses on social media customer service, that’s something we acquired a couple years ago and it’s really new so we needed and the whole Respond team to be able to get together and just have face-to-face time. So they all went to New York, worked together for a week and if we really need to sort of accelerate the progress of a project, a small area retreat has been a good way for us to do that.
All of this takes a lot of work, so much work than I knew before I became a remote worker. The things that normally get transmitted at a physical office just don’t get transmitted remote unless you’re really, really deliberate about it. We have to over communicate everything to make sure that a lot of communication is getting through. And we try and do it in a really positive way, because you don’t have the benefit of reading body language, of reading tone, of understanding facial expressions online. So defaulting to sort of positivity, smiley faces, a lot of GIFs, smiley faces are probably the most used word at Buffer in our Slack channel. So focusing on suggestive, not sort of demanding type language and positivity really help us create a healthy workplace as we communicate remotely. There are a lot of challenges, of course, turning off is probably the biggest one when your laptop is your office. It’s so easy to work constantly.
So we talk a lot about structure, building boundaries into your day, coming up with morning and afternoon rituals, whatever you need to do to allow you to like switch off, have that time to rest and recuperate it’s really important to be able to do that. Isolation, as I mentioned, it can get a little lonely especially in some of the more sparsely populated time zones. And then we have this issue called false harmony, that’s what we’ve been calling it where if you default to positivity and you don’t really get to talk to one another as much as you might, you can run into a situation where it’s kind of hard to get critical feedback. So we really want to work on that and find ways to sharpen our ideas against one another to seek out that deliberate feedback. And of course that serendipity challenge, recreating those water-cooler moments is really tough. We’re doing some fun video experiments now to work on that, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as to how it goes. But generally, it’s all worth it. We get some amazing benefits, including all the ones that I talked about previously, we all kind of are aligned with that sense of purpose, we build great flexibility of course through being remote, which leads to a lot of trust through the transparency that we have. And we’re really able to create a work-life blend that is incredible. Teammates are able, I hope, to be able to be their full selves and bring as much of themselves to work every day as possible. And so I really appreciate y’all listening to all this. Thank you so much.