How Buffer managed to keep its onboarding human while staying remote
What would you do if you had to onboard and connect with your employees from your home? Or, probably from a coffee shop? Does it excite you that you don’t have to push yourselves to work every day? Or, does syncing-up over the phone so often petrify you? In that case, against which scale would you measure and optimize your onboarding workflow?
Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you might have heard of Buffer, the Social media management platform company that strongly believes in working remotely. With no central office and timezones spread, Buffer throws GIF parties on their 24/7 active chatroom office Hipchat to celebrate every successful employee onboarding.
Wait, what? GIF parties in the chatroom office?
You might think that such onboarding practices of a remote working company like Buffer wouldn’t be something that you can measure yourself against. But, you never know! Yes. You never really do, until you see what this amazing company has to say about their onboarding that changed their bottom line.
Here’s why you should take that 7-minute pause to read this article
At the end of this article, you are sure to take away one thing from here — Calibrating your onboarding program. It comes as a little surprise to know that most of us have been building up quite a lot of myths around the concept of employee onboarding. At some juncture, we even deviate from achieving what is expected out of the onboarding program by defaulting ourselves to our own misconceptions of “Cultural fitness”.
If a remote company like Buffer could rock at employee onboarding like this (when they have every single reason to get away with), I’m sure you can do it 10x times better than them, given you’re obliged to onboard your employees in a more structured way.
Now let’s unfurl Buffer’s inspiring story for you! Lezzzgoo!
Bootcamping or dating? — Retiring the 45-day Bootcamp
There’s still a chance things won’t work out, whether it’s 2 weeks in or 6 months down the road. When this happens, we’ll continue to show as much gratitude and respect as possible to the departing teammate and set them up with a generous departure package.
Buffer had one of the extensive onboarding programs which was a 45-day Bootcamp. Buffer defines Bootcamp as a period of two way communication where, both the new hire and the company can see if their relationship would work or not. Yes, it’s a little like dating. The 45-day Bootcamp was more of getting the bootcamper assigned to the three buddies — Leader, role & culture buddy and, setting up accounts to dive into the tools headfirst even before diving into the culture and values the company upholds. There’s a one-on-one chat session between the Bootcamper and the leader buddy every fortnight, to ensure the new hire is on the same page as that of the team. The one-on-ones are all about coaching, open communication, and feedback. Also, there’re weekly pairing calls wherein, mini sync-ups between the different teammates and the Bootcamper happens. However, the bootcamp carried its own disadvantages. It needs to be noted that the new hire will not be able to enjoy any benefit, retreat or equity during the bootcamp as they would be considered as contract employees just yet.
“The most challenging part for me is the pressure I put on myself at the beginning of bootcamp” wrote Buffer’s Customer Advocate Mick in an AMA. “I could see that the rest of the (Customer Advocacy) teams were answering a huge number of emails each day. I felt that I needed to get off to a flying start and it resulted in a lot of long 12+ hour days.”
This kind of onboarding seemed more like an audition rather than support which destroys the sole rationale behind creating such a Bootcamp. In retrospect, Buffer decided to revolutionize their Bootcamp to use it to their benefit to broaden and enhance their values. They realized the Bootcamp started to feel a bit off on a variety of levels and that the whole of it required an overhaul to unify the onboarding process.
This is exactly when you need to jot down the list of reasons to revamp your onboarding process. A quick hack is to foresee the voice of your company’s onboarding culture. Knowing what is expected of the onboarding process and then reverse engineering will help you decide if you really have to get your hands on a revamp or not.
Reengineering the right chunk of the onboarding process – The art of leaving things undisturbed
If you know your onboarding feels a bit off but don’t know where to begin from, it’s better you stop right there, analyze and do not disturb what’s good already. Buffer holds a similar analogy when it felt the Bootcamp was not serving the purpose and hence decided to skew the process. Buffer retired its Bootcamp. It even felt a bit rude to call it so, as it killed the sole intent of the program itself. From trying to foster its culture into the new hires, it realized that onboarding is not about how your employees can conform to your culture, but how you can expand your culture by learning from them. You can use the perspectives and experiences of different folks to your benefit and expand new horizons to your company values. With the same amount of training, feedback and coaching, a teammate will be considered a full-time employee and hence be eligible for all the benefits including the retreats if it happens to fall during their probationary period.
While reworking on their onboarding process, Buffer realized that besides rigorously growing the team over the years, they’ve had more than a few slip-ups, like laptops arriving damaged, trouble creating work accounts for the new hires, new hires starting on a holiday and more. Another major chunk involved making the new hire who lived remotely feel much acquainted and valued by the company. From spamming the new hire with just chat messages and a few welcome emails, Buffer added cadence to its onboarding emails by limiting and sticking to just five timed emails, walking through:
- An ecstatic welcome!
- Collecting basic info
- Intro to managers and buddies
- An overview of remote tools we use. What to expect on day one An onboarding form where we ask: name, address, contact info, payroll info, laptop needs, T-shirt sizes and more
- A central onboarding document where we store all important links and a day-by-day checklist of tasks and resources for each new hire to establish a solid foundation on the team.
The new onboarding program also ensured that the buddies met at the end of every 30, 60 and 90 days to rediscover the areas where the newbie excelled and what are their strengths. Since the whole idea is to learn from the freshest perspectives of the newbies, the new hires are encouraged to provide feedback to the team on both product and cultural aspects. Fortunately, Buffer was able to optimize its entire onboarding workflow. Thanks to the values that they hold dear that enables them to learn from their mistakes.
It’s pivotal that you do not disturb the portions of your onboarding that are working fine. If your onboarding tasks are aligned with your company’s values already, leave it untouched. What works for you might not work for others as well. Hence, before getting yourself started with adding tone and emotion to your onboarding, ask yourself, “ Is my reason to revamp the existing onboarding program concrete enough to do it?”. Identify, understand and then, act on.
Buffer’s unbroken scale to maintain and onboard a remote team with a cohesive mindset
Making employees feel more secure
Working on a contract basis with no pay is a huge risk. When employees don’t feel financially secure, you might miss out on their candid thoughts, fresh perspectives, and risky yet worthy ideas because you always have to keep them like a cat on the wall. Hence, it is pivotal that you help your employees build psychological safety from day one!
When newcomers are “processes” to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their identities, at least while they are at work. But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting,
Curbing artificial harmony
Due to the fear of losing their jobs, new employees might not bring their true selves to work. This puts them into a state of reluctance even to have healthy conflicts in the workplace thus providing a large room for artificial harmony. Artificial harmony creates a false impression among the rest of the employees that they’re all on common ground when the reality is they’ve never had real conversations with each other. Although this is quite prevalent in the case of remote working, you can’t vouch for the contrary in the case of non-remote working too.
Embracing value fit over culture fit
Most often than not, we don’t have a scale to measure against when we say culture fit. Most of the recruiters tend to make hiring decisions based on common aspects such as hobbies, hometowns, and biographies. Without a real metric to calibrate against and going by one’s gut feeling or the cliched “airport test,” you can never comprehend or establish your company’s culture fitness. Instead, Buffer skewed its idea of expectation from candidates by putting forth questions like “what cultural contribution will the new hire add to the system?” such as — Does this person offer a dimension that our culture might be missing? In what ways might this person challenge our thinking and processes? Will this person bring a viewpoint or context we may be missing? By answering these questions one can easily come about the fact that value fitness is way greater than cultural fitness, indeed!
Another term that gets a lot of play at Buffer is “Values fit”. To focus on the values at work, you don’t have to belong to the same background, life experiences or abilities as that of your peers. What’s important is aligning yourself and your peers with the goals of the company.
Culture is meant to evolve, and every new teammate we add has the potential to broaden and enhance our culture – if we allow them to. Instead of looking for the perfect culture fit, we’ve started instead to focus on values fit and cultural contribution.
The fun. Now we’re talking.
Kindle and jawbone up — Working smarter by taking personal improvements seriously
Having a brimming and evolving vocabulary around culture and values at Buffer comes as no surprise. While going that extra mile to improve the lives of its employees not just professionally but personally as well does. Defaulting itself to transparency, Buffer makes everything from salaries to sleep statuses public. Every employee is handed out a Jawbone UP to track their sleeping behavior. For all those of you to whom Jawbone UP sounds greek and Latin, Jawbone UP is a fitness band that tracks all your activities like sleep, exercise, and movement. By tracking these simple yet powerful fitness metrics, Team Buffer congratulates its employees on any progress. For instance, let’s say you have a goal to sleep eight hours every night and go to bed no later than 10:00 p.m. The UP band tracks all this and makes it accessible to the whole team. Anyone can follow up with you on how you’ve done on your goals.
Buffer just doesn’t stop there at monitoring your improvements. It inches up by providing every new hire with a Kindle to let them read any book of their choice. Not necessarily job specific books. They even have a neat system in place that drops alerts into Hipchat, our 24/7 chatroom office.
Being unusually open in other ways
A lot of you might say better work-life balance, customizable office, better health and more when asked about your take on working remotely. Would you believe if I said, salary transparency is one of the alluring reasons for the employees at Buffer to pursue what they pursue right now?
A few years back, Buffer made salaries completely public to live up to its core value of transparency. While Starbucks used salary transparency to close gender and race pay gaps Buffer created a clear policy (like a calculator) that shows employees why they’re being paid what they’re paid to help staff understand the rationale behind their salary while creating trust. And by tieing this rationale back to its core value of transparency, Buffer helped its remote workers build a meaningful connection with the company, helping them live the company’s values every day.
Retreats to sync-up with colleagues
Would you believe if I said it’s only twice in a year this company meets all its employees under the same roof and spends $111,874 on just that? To meet its employees in a more relaxed manner, their families are invited over too. Well, it is a retreat or an on-site to rejuvenate the team to reduce the sense of isolation.
Buffer has learned to prioritize its slip-ups and managed to optimize its onboarding workflow with regular feedback from the buddies. Instead of focusing on finding a culture fit, which most of us don’t know the right scale to measure against, Buffer focuses more on being Value fit. For, culture being a dynamic entity itself, the value added by the new hire to the system is what would be a deal-breaker. If you could learn one thing from Buffer, it is the passion to build a remote yet cohesive team. Despite a plethora of challenges while onboarding someone physically, remotely doing it is beyond imagination.
Over to you! (*Buffer style*)
Every company dreams of creating a perfect employee but forgets the fact that onboarding also means reiterating on the company values, each time there’s a fresh set of perspectives in the team. In retrospect, this is the thought that drove Buffer to reengineer their 4+ years strong onboarding program. Unlike the millions of companies out there trying to define what onboarding is, Buffer approached this from a different facet by learning to figure out what is not. Clearly, onboarding is not about introducing your culture and values of your company but getting introduced to theirs as well!
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