The joys and benefits of working as a distributed team

Written on 27th August, 2013
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Buffer is a fully distributed team. It’s a decision I had to make at the end of 2012, and it’s interesting to reflect on that decision now. I am happy to report that I am in love with the choice we made to be distributed all across the world.

How Buffer is set up

When I say we’re a distributed team, I mean that we’re literally spread across the whole planet. Buffer is a team of 12 right now, and here are the locations of everyone in the team:

  • 4 people in San Francisco, California: Leo, Carolyn, Sunil and myself
  • 1 person in Texas: Brian
  • 1 person in Massachusetts: BMR
  • 2 people in the UK: Andy and Colin
  • 1 person in Sweden: sa
  • 1 person in Hong Kong: Michelle
  • 1 person in Taipei, Taiwan: Niel
  • 1 person in Melbourne, Australia: Belle

In addition, Michelle was in San Francisco until just a week ago, Andy regularly travels and sa just took a few months trip back to Sweden (she normally resides in Sydney, Australia).

6 reasons being distributed is so exciting

I think the distributed team discussion is often focused around the challenges. I wanted to share from our experience the fun side of being distributed, which I think far outweighs the challenges:

1. Our team is super productive

The thing about hiring people for a distributed team is that they need to be self-motivated and productive working at home, coffee shops or a co-working space. We have a 45-day contract period to see how this goes and we look especially for people who have worked as freelancers or on startups. Everyone on board is incredibly smart and it’s humbling to work with them.

2. Team members have incredible amounts of freedom

Have a family event coming up and need to travel on Friday? No problem. Want to take off to Bali or Gran Canaria for a few weeks and work from there? Awesome - please share photos :) These things have all happened and are regular occurrences within our distributed team. It’s the little things too, like being able to avoid a commute and spend more time with family. We don’t have working hours and we don’t measure hours at all. We’re all excited about our vision and we focus on results, balance, and sustained productivity.

3. It feels like the future

Even being able to share the locations of all my co-workers when I meet others and chat about Buffer is so much fun and exciting. I think it provides a great story rather than all of us being in the same office each day. People ask how we manage it and I share our workflows and tools. We call HipChat our office, and a number of Google Hangouts are our conference rooms. I genuinely believe that how we’re set up will be very normal in a few years. There are certainly challenges and we’re still figuring a lot of it out. It’s fun and a huge privilege to be able to be part of this innovation and experiment and share our learnings.

4. I’m learning so much about the world

People within the team speak lots of different languages and talking with each other we learn about what it’s like to grow up elsewhere in the world. We think carefully about shaping our culture further and how our choices might affect the various cultures within the team. Carolyn recently has kindly been educating us about Nashville:

I enjoy having internat’l coworkers for *many* reasons, but explaining the concepts of “honky tonks” and “line dancing” is high on the list!

Carolyn Kopprasch (@CaroKopp) August 26, 2013

5. We travel the world to work together 3 times a year

Part of the DNA of Buffer is that we traveled all over the world for much of the first two years. This is something that has been sustained and is part of our values (and many in the team have lived up to this value by traveling as part of the team).

In order to have deliberate face-to-face time together to bond and have fun, we have 3 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 had our first in San Francisco (and Lake Tahoe) and next time we’ll be heading to a beach in Thailand!

6. Timezones make you awesome

Finally, you can look at timezones as an inconvenience, or you can embrace them and discover the magic of the time difference.

A key part of our vision is to set the bar for customer support. We obsessively track happiness of our customers and our speed to respond to them. We have almost a million users and we reply to 50% of emails within 1 hour and 75% within 6 hours. We do this with a Happiness Hero team of just 3, and we couldn’t achieve this level of service without being spread across multiple timezones.

Timezones are a huge help for our development cycle too - with engineers in the US, UK and Asia, we literally never stop coding.

Do you have experience of working in or growing a fully distributed team? Or do you have any thoughts about working in this way? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Colleen Lane