Questions I ask myself about working as distributed team

June 30, 2013remote work

As a CEO I often ponder how I can help the team be as productive and happy as possible. As part of our decision to be a distributed team at Buffer, there have been a number of amazing advantages this has brought as well as it making a fun team to be part of due to the many different cultures and locations of team members. Recently I’ve seen quite a number of articles about remote working, and I’m excited so many are sharing their insights. I particularly enjoyed Wade Foster's article on how they manage a remote team at Zapier and wanted to share some insights into how we do things at Buffer.

The decision to be a distributed team

During the few months I spent focused on the decision of whether to commit to Buffer being a distributed team, I sought advice from many people. Some of the best advice I received was from David Cancel, who I had the chance to sit down with and chat over coffee. His key insight was that in his experience founding a number of companies so far, he has found that two scenarios work well, while one doesn’t work too well. He advised that we either be fully distributed, or have everyone in the same office. David said that the time he had a main office with the majority of people there and only one or two people working remotely, that didn’t work so well.

With this insight and further thinking I made the decision and we became a fully distributed team. We immediately hired a number of people working remotely to quickly balance out the team and ensure we were fully distributed rather than a team in one location with just one or two remote workers. This was an immediate benefit to us especially as a team focused on outstanding customer support, since we quickly covered all timezones.

The delicate nature of a distributed team

The interesting thing I’ve found with a distributed team is that I believe it is a very delicate balance to ensure that everyone who is away from the main base location feels just as much a part of the team. What you don’t want is to end up with a scenario with people feeling like “second class citizens” if they are not in the base where the office is. Jason Zimdars from 37signals put this in the best way I’ve heard:

There are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done.

I think this a super important quality of a great distributed team, and it is one we consistently keep in mind and something which causes many of the questions and choices around our distributed team.

Questions often in my mind while we grow as a distributed team

As a result of these difficult and important choices to ensure a distributed team works well, I often have some interesting thoughts and questions in my mind which to some could seem petty, but which I believe are essential to get right in order to thrive as a distributed team. Some of these questions we now have a confident stance on, others are things which still linger in my mind. I believe being a distributed team and figuring out the best path is a journey which will last the lifetime of the company.

Is it appropriate to have a base location?

This is a question I spent quite a number of months pondering. During the time, we were traveling the world having been unable to get visas to stay in the U.S. (we have visas now).

In the end, we realized that there are advantages to having a base location, depending on what your startup does. For us, we are in the social media space and we are regularly doing integrations with other startups. It just so happened these startups and the big social networks were all mostly based in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Proximity to them was a huge advantage in order to secure partnerships.

Is it right to have an office in the base location?

For some time, we avoided having an office at all. By early 2013 we had a team of 9 with 4 in San Francisco. Some felt less productive working from home and coffee shops than they would in an office. We spent a number of months sharing an office with the awesome Storify guys and the team grew a little more, too.

We also started to focus even more on culture, and the whole team started to love the fact that the Buffer way was rather different to the norm. Being part of Buffer felt unique and we wanted to embrace this further by having an office we could call our own. I think most distributed startups have an office: GitHub and 37signals come to mind as good examples.

Another key reason we got our own office is that while a large portion of the team are not in San Francisco, we are planning regular retreats to get the whole team in the same place. The first will be in a month’s time and will be in San Francisco so we needed a sizable office to work together for the 10 day retreat.

In person meetings or everything via HipChat, Hangouts and Email?

With an office, if team members are in San Francisco it can be easy to delay meetings until all team members are in the office. I thought a long time about this and bounced the dilemma off Leo too. The conclusion we came to is that we should always do the thing we can do immediately. If we need to quickly have a meeting and we’re not in the same place, we should jump onto a hangout, even if we are in the same city.

In a similar fashion, we try our best to have a real bias towards chatting on HipChat and sending each other emails even if we are sat across from each other in the same office. By doing this we are really embracing the goal of there being no advantage to being in the office, and it also allows other team members to jump in and share their ideas in discussions.

Should we celebrate getting an office, or keep quiet?

This has been one of the most interesting recent questions I’ve had in my mind. Clearly getting our own office is a big milestone and feels very appropriate now that we are beyond 10 people and we are on a revenue run rate of over $1.5m a year.

We don’t want to shout too much about the office when many team members are not in San Francisco, that didn’t feel too good. At the same time, it is an exciting point to reach with the company. We’ve tried our best to find the right balance with this, however I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

What perks are appropriate when you have a distributed team?

At Buffer we’ve had a lot of fun coming up with some perks which are individual to us. We believe that perks are not something you can take and apply to any company. Rather, they need to be an extension and enhancement to an already ingrained culture. With our culture of self improvement, one of our most interesting perks is that everyone in the team is gifted with a Jawbone UP and this triggers discussion around getting good sleep and being active.

Most technology companies pride themselves with perks such as free meals and snacks at the office, as well as ping pong tables and other ways to take a little time out and refresh. The most interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the perks are almost entirely focused around what is provided within an office. A nice exception that comes to mind is Evernote who provide all employees with house cleaning twice a month and also pay employees to take vacation.

At Buffer, our answer to this dilemma is that we try to focus on “everyone included” perks which are not tied to a physical office. We give everyone a Jawbone UP and a Kindle Paperwhite, and team members can get any Kindle book free of charge with no limits or questions asked. In the future I can imagine other “everyone included” perks such as free gym membership and house cleaning.

What if people want to move to San Francisco?

The final question I want to share is a very interesting one: how do you manage having the right balance of people away from your base location of San Francisco if everyone who joins finds that they want to relocate to San Francisco? This is something we’ve started to encounter which I never imagined could happen. So far Leo and I have moved to San Francisco, Carolyn is moving next month and Michelle has obtained a visa to move towards the end of the year. We’re working on a visa for Andy too, who has already visited many times.

Unless we figure out this issue, we will end up with an imbalance and too many people in San Francisco. Other team members will be more likely to feel “out of the loop” and “second class” to those in SF.

I don’t feel like I can force people to stay where they are. As the CEO of a company where we have chosen not to delay happiness, and with a journey so far where we have found a way to travel the world while growing the company 300% year over year, I think it is my duty to help people move wherever they will be happy, whether that is SF or elsewhere in the world. It just so happens that San Francisco seems to be one of the most attractive places to be in the world.

My answer to this one right now is to keep hiring outside the Bay Area. This seems to work well since it is very hard to find people in the Bay Area anyway!

This is a portion of the questions I’ve recently had on my mind and currently are topics I’m thinking about. I feel it is a huge privilege to be able to shape the company and grow a distributed team.

Photo credit: Steve Cadman

Thanks for reading

If you have any comments or feedback on this article, I’d love to hear from you. The best way to reach me is on Twitter.

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