The moments we realized that workplace culture exists. Then Courtney takes part in a remote work roundtable with pals from fellow remote(ish) startups Trello and Zapier. One fun tip that emerged: Using your dog as a remote work accountability partner.
Courtney: Hi, I'm Courtney Seiter.
Carolyn: I'm Carolyn Kopprasch.
Courtney: And this is the Buffer CultureLab podcast.
Carolyn: Where we’re slightly obsessed with creating happier, more human work.
Courtney: And we're back. Welcome to episode two of Buffer CultureLab. In our first episode, we shared a little bit about why we're interested in creating this
podcast, and now we're excited to start digging deeper. In each episode, we want to bring you two chapters, if you will. In the first, Carolyn and I will chat about an element of workplace culture, and in the second, I bring you interviews with folks who have unique cultures, and people who are innovating and creating in the realm of work culture. Today Carolyn and I talk about when it dawned on us that workplaces even have cultures of their own. Then I'll share a conversation I was lucky to have with folks from fellow tech startups, Trello and Zapier, about the triumphs and challenges of working remotely.
Courtney: I think it's interesting to talk about how people become aware that workplaces have a culture, and I'm curious to hear from you, Carolyn, when that realization happened for you?
Carolyn:I was very lucky to work for a company called Emma before I started at Buffer.
Courtney: Shoutout to Emma. Fun people.
Carolyn: Yeah, Emma is awesome. And I worked there for several years, and that was such a different vibe than my job before that. But that was the first time that I was sort of understood that-- I think that workplace culture has such an impact. Because previously I'd worked at an agency, and the people were lovely, and we'd try to do well by our clients and all normal business and human values upheld, but it was never really talked about, and it just wasn't all that explicit, and I didn't spend a lot of mental energy on it. And then I got to Emma. And [laughter] well first of all, when I applied at Emma, they had a question in the application that said, "If you were going to rip a phone book in half, what song would you like playing the background [laughter]?"
Carolyn: That's the point, I was like [chuckles], "This is a very unique place."
Courtney: What song did you say [laughter]?
Carolyn: “Who Let the Dogs Out” dance remix [laughter].
Courtney: Wait, I have a follow-up. Why [laughter]?
Carolyn: I don't know [laughter], but I've always had a special place in my heart for that song ever since-- because I'm like, "Oh, my three years at Emma", when I think about it. The history behind that is that there's a person who used to work at Emma who actually could rip the phone book in half - there was a trick to it. Anyway [chuckles].
Carolyn: And you learn that when a whole company all brings in their phone books every year and piles them in front of this guy's desk, and the whole company rallies around and chants, and is so excited to watch somebody do this, that's a workplace culture.
Courtney: That absolutely is a very specific workplace culture.
Carolyn: Very specific [laughter]. So I think that job really taught me not only how important it is, but how different it is at different places.
Courtney: When your agency job felt like-- and you don't need to say anything bad about them, but I'm interested in what it's like to work for a company that doesn't have any discernible culture, because I've had some experiences with that as well [chuckles].
Carolyn: I think I would probably be quoting a whole lot of startup people if I said, "If you think you don't have a culture, you do, you're just not being very intentional about it and it's probably not that great [laughter]."
Courtney: Most people, I feel like, and this is a vast generalization, the big part of the working world, people are generally like, "I'm going to do my job, I'm going to show up, I'm going to sit at my computer - whatever it is I do on the workplace floor - and then I'm going to go home. And home is where my real life is." And a lot of jobs I've had - I worked in the corporate world previously with publicly traded companies before I came to the startup world. And I've had the experience of being on a committee who was charged with putting on fun events so people would hang out. So we were sort of trying to create a culture where there really wasn't any interest in one. That's the moment I was like, "Oh, okay, workplace culture is a thing, and this place really doesn't quite have it, but would like it. And how do you create it when it doesn't really exist?" We never could figure out a solution to that problem [chuckles].
Carolyn: I think my response to that is that it's awesome to put energy into that, and to be saying, "We want to create events," and "We want people to hang out." I would say that's a really lofty view of how to change culture. And that is part of it, those parties and things like that. I think culture exists on a much more micro-level. The things people talk about at lunch, and if they eat lunch at their desk, and how people connect if it's saying, "How's your family?" Or, "I hate work [laughter]." Those little moments - that's workplace culture, I think. There's a book called The Decision Maker, that we have talked about a lot at Buffer, that I recommend. It's kind of a fable. It's a pretty easy read. The idea is they're like, "We're going to make workplace culture so we're going to install a pinball machine in the break room."
Carolyn: One of the executives ends up overhearing a conversation between two people, who are like, "Yeah, that doesn't..." It's kind of like putting lipstick on a pig a bit. What really matters to us is how we feel in our day to day jobs. Not how it feels when we're invited to spend a couple minutes a day in this fun thing. So kegs and pinball machines, and things like that I think is often used as evidence of culture, but this book is sort of suggesting that it really happens in how decisions are made, and how employees talk to each other, how teammates interact, and how one to ones are operated, and how team leads discuss things with teammates or with each other, or things like that. I think it's really awesome to focus on that, but I would say that's probably 5% of it.
Courtney: I love the phrase evidence of culture. Because when you're adding things on, like parties, pinball machines, like darts, or whatever it is. It probably came about from-- there probably were companies with great cultures where those things happened organically, like the phone book ripping [chuckles], you can't just install. It has to spring from an authentic place of people feeling comfortable with one another, people wanting to hang out, people feeling a genuine connection. Not that you have to hang out. I don't think a great workplace culture equals, "We're best friends. We want to hang out all the time." You can have a super great professional workplace culture and get the job done, and have a lot of stuff going on in your personal life, and that's fine too. I think somehow it's happened where we tend to equate games, beer at the office, as air-quotes "culture." It's like 5% of what culture really could be, maybe, if you really want to dig into it.
Carolyn: Yeah. And what was interesting for us at Buffer, was that we didn't have the luxury of pointing at those things, or to say it another way, maybe a more cynical way, hiding behind those things, because we were distributed. We didn't have the pinball machines, and the beers, and the hanging out. We had to say, "What is our culture if we don't have those things?" So that's kind of where the shared values and the decisions about gifting Kindle books and a Kindle to everyone on the team.
Courtney: That’s the best perk.
Carolyn: Yeah, I know. It's the best perk ever. And we kind of said, We don't really have that sort of in-office fun workplace type idea or opportunity. So what does it look like if a bunch of people are still going to have conversations and get to know each other, and talk and connect, and talk about work, and talk about personal lives, both to each other and to their families and to their friends? How do we provide an environment where people feel like they want to talk about things that are exciting to them, or helping them improve or be their best selves, without sort of forcing it? Without saying, "Every Friday we get together, and we talk about what we're doing to..." It's this funny line of like leading a horse to water, like, "Here's books and here's a Jawbone, and here's all sorts of other things to try and create an environment where you feel supported, and you feel like you can be your whole self, and you feel like you can pursue your dreams, and talk about things that you're excited about.” You want to be uplifting but without having this hammer about it.
Courtney: Yeah. You have to trust people to create that. It's like throwing a party, you can't have people get together and say, "Okay, talk about this."
Carolyn: Totally, and just like the party example, it all comes down to who's there. So if you have people in the environment, in the office or in the party or wherever it is, who are happy to be there and excited about what direction the company is going, and genuinely caring about each other, then it's a lot easier to create a great culture [chuckles]. It's kind of like cheating to start at the hiring level.
Courtney: Yeah, the best way to create culture is to hire amazing people [laughter]. Just do that and you'll be fine.
Carolyn: There's this quote - I think it's Jim Rome, but I could be wrong, that says that he saw a sign that said, "We don't train our employees to be really nice people. We just hire nice people [laughter]." And he loves that, he's like, "That's so clever. That's such a smart hack." [music]
Courtney: We talk about remote work a lot at Buffer, and it seems like any company that makes this way of work an option has a lot to say about it. Recently I got to be part of a great remote work roundtable hosted by Lauren Moon, who is a Content Marketing Manager at the productivity app Trello. She asked me and Alison Groves of the tool Zapier a lot of awesome questions. Have a listen. [music]
Lauren: So I really wanted to just kind of do a round table. I have some questions to ask you guys, just kind of really kind of a casual conversation about some of your reflections on remote work and how we got here. And what maybe you wish could be different, or things like that. Pain points, too. So let's start with a quick intro. What do you do at your company? How long have you been there?
Courtney: I am Courtney, I work at Buffer, working on the marketing side and people side. I'm a hybrid right now doing half brand marketing - like, our culture, our values, why we do what we do, the transparency side - and half inclusivity and diversity efforts. So helping us grow in a deliberate way. I have been there for two years and it was my very first remote work jobs, so I got a crash course really quickly.
Alison: My name is Alison, and I work for a company called Zapier, and we do automation, business automation, not necessarily home automation, but anything you can think of in anything that you need to automate worlds would help you take care of that. I'm also a hybrid like Courtney, I'm both on the Platform and the Marketing Team helping us bring new apps and partners to the Zapier platform. So they come to us most of the time to put their app in our ecosystems, and I work with the Platform Team to help organize that, and then on the marketing side, we make sure that every app gets a brand new introduction into the Zapier community. So we're bringing a new app to Zapier, as of now, every single day. So it's all happening [chuckles].
Lauren: Right. And how long have you been there?
Alison: Two years.
Lauren: What was the transition like when you guys went full remote?
Alison: When I started doing it, it was very hard for me, and I know Courtney and I kind of went through these struggles together where for the first couple months it was-- I don't know anything to do, but to work, because there's so much to do, and I'm really excited, and I want to be doing this, and there's no clear separation between what I'm doing during the day and what I'm doing at night. So I think-- Courtney, I think you and I probably spend a lot of evenings together in those early days to kind break ourselves away from trying to find that work-life balance for sure.
Courtney: One of the things that was really helpful to me was to have a designated stop point in the day, and someone or something, who could hold me accountable to that, whether it's like my dog knows we take walks at 6:00 PM, or someone is expecting me to come over to make dinner, just something beyond myself, because I myself could not stop myself from working at certain points. Buffer especially, because we're an international team, everyone's coming on at all hours of the day. When you're signing off some people in other parts of the world are just signing on and you're like, "Oh, I want to talk to this person," or like, "We could do this together," and there's an impulse to just stay on your computer forever and ever. So I really discovered early on that I needed very strong incentives and reasons to not be on a computer and that was really helpful.
Lauren: I like the idea that your dog is like, "Okay. What are we doing here [chuckles]?"
Courtney: He’s a great accountability partner.
Lauren: Yeah. It could be your dog. I think that's adorable. Are you still all in? Can you ever imagine going back to an office?
Courtney: I can't at this point. It took me a long time to get it, because I come from a very butts-in-the-seats type of environment. I had never had that kind of freedom to live this way, and I saw all my teammates traveling, going these exotic places and working. And I will admit, I had a slight perception, I was like, "They're probably not working as hard as I am." When I'm my desk like typing, typing, typing. And then when I started traveling I was like, "Oh, it forces you to condense your day in such like a laser focus way." I honestly think I get more done when I'm on the move, because it makes me prioritize my day so tightly that I can't spend an hour just browsing Twitter which -- it happens [chuckles]. I've got to get this done. There's no other alternative. It was a huge, humbling learning for me that you can so much more done and I definitely should not have judged people who travel as less hard workers, that's not true at all.
Alison: I think Courtney nailed it. When I'm at home, and I know even when we're at home together, if she and I are working it's just together. It's just, you're at home, you are still getting work done but there is no real end point. I know for a fact that, Courtney, that you and I have sat there until 7:00 o'clock at night, not even realizing together what we're doing. And then we're like "Oh, we're hungry, we should do something about that".
Whereas when you're on the road, and you're on the move, you have to be very, very, very deliberate about your time, and what you're doing, and I know that I get-- this is probably sad to admit, I get way more done in a shorter time when I travel.
Lauren: What do you guys think about the idea of you have this desk that maybe you don't even go to really if you're not working at your house? It's a mind association thing. You go to this desk, that means you're working. Or whatever. Or maybe you're couch sitters, I don't know.
Alison: I work everywhere in my house, except for my bed, that's the one place I don't take my work.
Lauren: Good idea.
Alison: When I was younger, I fell into that terrible trap of never getting out of bed, and always having my laptop with me. Now and part of that was demand of the job, like it was kind of a 24/7 job, but at the same time it was a terrible, terrible habit. I have a standing desk in my office, but sometimes I find that a little distracting, because I have a big monitor I find myself-- my brain can go really quickly to everything that's on it. So a lot of times if I need to write, I will actually just take my laptop over to the couch or somewhere else where I have a tiny screen, and I can only focus on what I'm writing. So everyone's going to have a different answer to that question. But I personally have never been one who was like, "Oh well, you know I have to have my designated work space, and my designated living space." But I do understand why people do that.
Courtney: I would like to be a person who does that, but right now I lack discipline terribly in that. I work from everywhere, including beds - a lot. I don't know, I don't even want to say it's not good, because for me it kind of actually works okay. But I do understand why you would want to create a place. Otherwise your whole house becomes slightly associated with work, and you have work feelings all over it, which is not always a good emotion to be having all over your house [laughter].
Alison: Work feelings [chuckles].
Lauren: Work feelings. You're like, "I can't go in that corner, it just reeks of work feelings.”
Lauren: I want to transition a little bit into the company dynamics behind a remote culture. Ours is different because it's only half remote, so there is this sense that there is a home base. What I want to hear is the entirely remote aspect of it. How does that affect you personally? How do you think it affects company culture? How do you guys get to know each other? Those kind of questions.
Alison: At Zapier we do physical onboarding. Any new employee-- and I think this might be impossible for Buffer, one because the people-- the sort of oldest employees are still pretty transient, I think they travel a lot. Whereas our three co-founders are in the Valley, and they're kind of homebodies, and like just stay put. So anytime someone new comes on they actually go out there for a week, and some of us will join them. I usually go every couple of months, and just hang out with new people, and then kind of spend the week just learning the ropes whatever that might be. So for developers it will be getting their production environment set up, for support people it's just throwing them into the fire, and trying to support 600 different apps, and then getting all that sort of stuff set up. And then for us on the marketing side we might spend a couple of days brainstorming, or just having good conversations face-to-face with the person.
Alison: So that on-boarding process for us, I think still works really well. I don't know if how you know when we're growing exponentially if we're going to be able to pull that off still. But I do really like that. I think it's really, really helpful, and it also allows you to get to know a couple of your teammates, like, right off the bat. So that's really good. And I'll let Courtney talk about retreats, because we kind of do the same thing, but for us it's sort of those two chunks. Like one, when you first start, you have your on-boarding time, and then that other part is you might go back out there to San Jose for someone else's onboarding. So we do sort of have those smaller experiences. And then we just like Buffer do, do two retreats a year. All face-- so, everyone together.
Courtney: For Buffer, this is a big one. So early on, our founders basically got kicked out of Silicon Valley, because they are Austrian and British, and didn't have the right visas. So that's how Buffer sort of became remote at first, because they [chuckles] were in the wrong place, so had to go somewhere.
Courtney: And so as a result they really started to enjoy this travel experience, and what they gained from going other places, and it became ingrained in Buffer's culture very early, before there even was a product almost. This was a cool way to be able to live and work. Then, as we grew-- and I mean as we grew first 5, 10, 15 people, a decision had to be made around, "Do we want this to be how it works for Buffer?" We felt pretty strongly (and this is way before me, so when I say, "We," I don't mean me personally - I mean people who came earlier) that it needed to be one or the other. We didn't want, for our personal reasons, to split the difference, and have an office with some people in it and some people floating around remotely. We really wanted there to be one solution and there's no preference either way, whichever one we chose.
Courtney: So they ending up going with the remote idea, and I think it's had a huge impact in shaping our culture. Almost everything we do has to be slightly different, slightly skewed, because we're not in the same place in the world. Like how we deal with time zones. We do a lot of asynchronous work, like if you're working with someone in Cape Town, South Africa, I've got maybe a one hour or two hour overlap with my teammates there. So we can meet during that time, otherwise we're going to need to work on a Paper doc where I can add stuff, and then he can wake up and add his stuff. And work can sort of be happening all of the time that way.
Courtney: The way we communicate with one another on a day-to-day basis has
changed a lot because of that. It's so hard to transmit emotion when you don't see someone physically face to face. So we try and overcome that with GIFs and emojis, basically [chuckles]. Because our hub is Slack, it's our water cooler, it's our office, it's like everything for us. So we have to take advantage of that, and create those moments to have fun, and be yourself, and bring some of who you are - your humor, your personality - into how we communicate and what we do. Because otherwise we would never know one another beyond a surface level until we went on retreat, and we do that twice a year. So you could go every six months with these people being just random faces in a box to you, unless you really take that extra effort to get to know them.
Lauren: It's interesting to hear what you guys do, and kind of compare it to what we do. We were a totally HQ company, and then someone who's originally from Hawaii wanted to go remote. He sort of started the whole thing.
From there it just became a compelling recruiting tool to be able to attract anyone from anywhere, as opposed to just in New York. We're half remote.
My team especially is half remote, my Marketing Team. So my manager is remote. But he person I work closest to, Brian, I sit right next to, so obviously I'm closer to Brian.
Lauren: But for us we have found-- and there was a lot of pain points in the beginning in terms of communication because we were all just figuring it out. My manager was the first remote manager. It was interesting what you said, Courtney, about face-to-face, because we realized that when there were pain points or we weren't communicating very well a lot of it had to do with trying to convey this on Slack or trying to figure it out on Slack, and eventually we learn to immediately default to a video, and that assuaged a lot of the weirdness. How often do you guys default to face-to-face conversations through video chat? And how does that help or not help?
Courtney: I would say I have three to four video chats a day, everyday. If it's a meeting or something that if there are big decisions to be made, really almost any decisions to be made, we tend to default to video, and that's how we do our one-on-ones, our coaching. It's a huge part of our day, and I don't know that it would work without it.
Alison: I'm kind of opposite. I would go many, many days without having a video chat, and I think that's because we're still as small as we are, and everyone still has really sort of independent, yet super defined, spaces that they operate in. So when I do a chat, it's because we're either having our weekly marketing meeting, our weekly platform meeting. I do a one-on-one every week with Danny, who's our Marketing Team Lead, and he brings all the information together and disseminates it back out to everyone else. But other than that I think, again-- and it might be just the nature of what I do. Like, what I do is so singular and so me, and doesn't really involve anyone else, that I don't need to do that.
Alison: But I think that's pretty common across Zapier. We're still at that point where everyone has really, really defined roles, and even the-- as the teams grow they're still really independent. It will be interesting to see if that changes the more we grow, and the more our roles start to overlap each other, or we get more-- not necessarily more help, but like when we get more hands in like what that will mean, as far as communication goes.
Lauren: We also have these Friday afternoon, like we all drink beer together on the video chat. Which ends up being-- like you'd think it would be like weird but it's actually like a pretty compelling time. Like sometimes it goes on for hours, like hours and hour, which is hilarious.
Courtney: I love that. That's so adorable.
Lauren: Yeah, it's called beer bash, or remote beer bash.
Courtney: We've been thinking about doing something like that. One of the hardest things for me about being remote is when you really like your teammates, and you want to hang out with them, and you want to go to happy hour, but they live somewhere totally across the world.
Lauren: Right. That is like one of the hardest things for me. Especially because I do have all these-- we do hang out all the time the HQ people and we're like "Man, wouldn't it be so cool if like she was here? Or like.." Whoever, like, "Oh, Ryan would love this show, but he lives in LA". It just feels like I have all these-- I feel like I have all these friends all over the place now, which is whacked, because I'm like do I even really know them? The funniest-- I don't know if you guys have ever experienced this, but like, there are people who are like really outgoing and all over Slack, and like in every channel, and like funny and hilarious and you feel like you really like know them. You know? And you're like, "They're great. This is awesome." And then they come to HQ, and they're like super shy. And they're in person [chuckles] and you got to like, "Ooh." I'm like, "Talk to me, we talk all the time." And they're super shy and you're like, "Is this like internet, what is this? What is happening here?"
Courtney: That's so fascinating.
Courtney: We've had the opposite happen a lot, where we can't really tell like, "Oh maybe they're shy?" Or like, "Maybe they're very professional?" And then at our retreat they're like the karaoke superstar. And you're like, "I had no idea!"
Lauren: That's great. But there is a lot to know about people. And the other thing is with the remote thing, because I'm in HQ, I see everybody when they on-board - they are here for the first week - but if I don't work on your team-- like for example, I would never work with a QA tester. There is absolutely no reason that I ever need to interface with a QA tester. So if they're remote and I never have to work with them, I really don't know them at all, and if I was remote too, I would have never even met them, and I would've never even worked with them. So I think about those things a lot. I think about remote people who don't know each other and I'm like, "You might like each other." Or like, "It's crazy that they don't even know each other," and those are the things that-- I worry about that or [laughter]-- I don't know.
Lauren: As teams grow, what can you really do about that? You can't be friends with everybody anyway. Even if we were all in the same building. I just am always wondering how do you supplant that funny little conversation that you had with that random person in the bathroom by the sink, or that silly little interaction when that person spilled all the pencils everywhere. How do you get that? I know you said, Courtney, that you guys have a lot of personal Slack channels. You have family channels and pets channels. That's something that we do too. All those cat people know everybody else's cats names and stuff like that.
Alison: All the cat people [laughter].
Courtney: Yes. You’ve got to know the cats’ names.
Lauren: Those are not my people. I'm in the dog room, but anyway [laughter].
Courtney: One thing that we found, and this is brand new. In Hawaii we were like, "Let's figure out Snapchat." So we did. We came back and we created a thread in our internal Facebook group where we're like, "Let's all follow each other on Snapchat." And it's turned out to be the most interesting way to see inside someone's life, because the stuff you share on Snapchat is your randomest, everyday, what's going on, like, "I'm walking to work, I'm eating a muffin," whatever is happening. Now I know people's pets, I people's kids, I know what filters they like. It's been a level of getting to know people that we just discovered.
Lauren: That's a great one.
Alison: That might be the only legitimate use of Snapchat.
Courtney: Right? It's perfect for remote teams.
Lauren: That's a great one. Also, I'm always like, I'm too old for Snapchat.
Courtney: That's what I thought, too. I'm very old.
Alison: One thing that we did that's a lot of fun, everyone you know, you have that one little thing you know about them that's not necessarily mean, but it's that one little thing that you poke at. So one of our co-founders, Mike - he's our product guy - he loves Bud Light. He loves it. He unabashedly loves it [laughter]. That's what everyone knows about Mike and we all pick on Mike because of that. Everyone in Slack has their own little custom emoji that our developers will make. So Mike has his own little Bud Light can, mine is me riding a Segway.
Courtney: You're riding a Segway? That's your thing?
Alison: No, Zapier has a Segway. It was a gift from someone. And so whenever you go out to HQ you ride the Segway, it's almost like an initiation because they're really hard to ride. Someone took a picture of me riding the Segway and someone else, who wasn't there, loved it and turned into a Slack emoji. You find those fun little things that you-- little quirks in people, and that really comes out in Slack, for sure. And then that carries over, that carries over in real life too.
Alison: But it's getting more and more difficult, I think, the bigger we are. For us in Florida, I felt, and I think this is just a part of who I am, I felt a pretty tough-- a rough burden to make sure that everyone was hanging out, and was together, and I just think you pass a certain point. I'm sure, Courtney can speak to this too that's just not feasible, and you just really kind of have to let people and groups, say larger than 25, just kind of find their own thing and migrate around, and I think people are pretty good about doing that. There's a giant board game contingency at Zapier and that's something
that like all the more introverted people like to do. I'm not a huge fan of it all, so I always abstain. So I think there is always ways for people to figure that out, and just you have to work a little bit harder at it when you are remote.
Lauren: Do you feel like you've made real friends? I feel like I have made real friends, but HQ and remote, more so HQ obviously because I see them more, but definitely remote also. I feel like I have made friends that are not just coworkers, but actual friends. Do you guys feel like you have that?
Alison: Yeah. In fact, I just traveled a couple of months ago to Barcelona to spend a week with one of my teammates there.
Alison: And she's lovely. I love her to bits. I think that-- and I imagine Courtney and I have probably had this conversation personally before, but the older you get, you realize that you have to work harder for things that mean something. If something does mean something it's worth that work. And so I feel the same way with having being on a remote team. It's like when you find those people that personally even outside of work that you really like, and that you want to spend time with, who cares where they are or what the circumstances are? If it's worth having you just work hard and you do it. And so I think that that really kind of manifests itself in this world, because we all work harder to be there for each other, and to kind of grow, not only professionally, but personally as well.
Courtney: We'd love to hear how this podcast felt to you. If you've got questions, thoughts, feedback, we're definitely new at this. We're excited to learn. So please be in touch with us. You can reach us on Twitter at@buffer and you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're excited to hear from you. [music]