Remote Work Interviews

Conversations with leaders and innovators about how industries and organizations think about the future of remote work.
How HubSpot Is Building Remote Work Into Its Company Culture
Katie Burke: Chief People Officer at HubSpot
Why Digital Nomadism Is the Future of Remote Work
Brian Peters: Strategic Partnerships at Buffer
February 27, 2019
Interview by Sophia Bernazzani
Photography by Brian Peters
Brian Peters is the Strategic Partnerships Manager at Buffer, a social media management platform company.

We're Owl Labs, and we build amazing collaborative experiences with our intelligent video conferencing hardware. Remote Work Interviews is a series of conversations with different leaders about how remote work fits into the future of work, featuring leaders from companies like HubSpot, Basecamp, Buffer, and many more. Subscribe to get notified whenever we publish a new conversation.

Brian Peters manages strategic partnerships at Buffer, a social media management platform company that's fully distributed, with employees around the world. Buffer helps organizations save time and get better results from social media marketing. Previously, Brian was digital marketing manager and social media director at Buffer, and he currently lives life as a digital nomad, traveling and working from around the world.

Owl Labs (OL): Tell me the elevator pitch for your career in a nutshell.

Brian Peters (BP): A one-minute elevator pitch for my career is that I focus on learning over a specific career path, so I'm always trying to find the next most impactful thing to work on. I started my career in sales, moved into social media, then digital marketing, and now, I'm Buffer's strategic partnerships manager. The way I approach my career is, if I believe I've learned as much as I can about a specific topic or discipline, I try to move on and learn something new about an emerging field. In that way, I'm always searching for new and exciting things to work on and learn about.

OL: What are you learning about in your current role at Buffer right now?

BP: I'm currently the strategic partnerships manager, which is fun because it's part marketing and part product. What that means is I spend half of my time developing co-marketing partnerships — identifying peers in our industry with whom we can mutually benefit in terms of audience and relationship and engagement. The other part of my role is in product, which means I'm focused on third-party apps and integrations and relationships for the Buffer platform. I make sure we can strengthen those relationships and also identify features or opportunities that, if we're not able to provide our customers via our product directly, our third-party apps and integrations can. It's been a fun learning experience for me, especially on the technical side of Buffer's business, learning about APIs and product growth.

OL: Who are you doing co-marketing partnerships with right now?

BP: We've evolved our co-marketing partner program over the last couple of years, and where it used to be focused on co-creating blog posts and other traditional marketing materials, now we try to leverage our sizeable audience to find co-marketing partnerships where we can get original data. We've found that original research is working well because it's what our audience finds most interesting. It's also often what provides the most actionable takeaways for our readers.

The Buffer Marketing Team

OL: Buffer just came out with a new State of Remote Work report. Were there any shocking findings?

BP: Yes! We partnered up with a few other brands to develop this research, and we surveyed 2,500 remote workers from around the world about their experiences.

One of the most shocking findings was that more than 40% of people working remotely still are feeling lonely. That was the most common challenge respondents cited. The second most common challenge is disconnecting from work, but I don't know if that's unique to remote workers or if that's a sentiment that people share no matter where they work in 2019. With everyone being connected 24/7 via technology, disconnecting from work might be a challenge for everyone.

Another interesting finding was that remote work is still very under-adopted by big companies. We found that the vast majority of people who took the survey would prefer to work remotely, but that only about 5% of their companies actually offered remote work options.

OL: What are Buffer's philosophies when it comes to remote work?

BP: To sum it up, at Buffer, we want people to work from the places that they're happiest and most productive. And we really do live by that.

Something I tweeted about recently that seemed to resonate with my followers was that there's a difference between companies that embrace remote work and companies that let employees work from home. Buffer has embraced remote work to the point that we're a remote-only company. If you find that you're most productive between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. somewhere in South America, we want you to work there, and we'll work around your schedule to make sure that you can live that lifestyle as long as you're productive and getting your work done.

Working from home is different. It's not technically remote work because you're still stuck working during the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours. Working from home is great for a lot of people because they get to spend more time with their family, their kids, and their pets. But it's not truly remote work because it still depends on the person working from home according to the traditional hours of the office. Buffer's philosophy is, we have the systems and tools in place that allow us to operate as a fully remote company with employees working around the world.

There’s a difference between companies that embrace remote work and companies that let employees work from home. Buffer has embraced remote work to the point that we’re a remote-only company. If you find that you’re most productive between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. somewhere in South America, we want you to work there, and we’ll work around your schedule to make sure that you can live that lifestyle as long as you’re productive and getting your work done.

OL: You've so enthusiastically adopted remote work to the point where you're living and working as a digital nomad. Can you explain what digital nomadism is?

BP: A digital nomad is a person who works remotely and travels from different locations around the world. Digital nomads pick time zones and areas around the world that are most generous for remote work, with reliable internet connectivity and co-working spaces or coffee shops. My wife and I have lived in eight different cities over the last two years, including New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver. We work while we travel, so for us, being digital nomads is a lifestyle that remote work empowers us to take advantage of.

OL: Where are you based, and how often are you working from there versus traveling the world?

BP: Right now, we're based in Denver, Colorado. We used to be based out of California, but we realized that was silly of us because we were paying California taxes and California housing costs but traveling almost six months out of the year. We decided that, since we were going to travel for several months out of the year, we might as well set up our home base in a place with a lower cost of living. Denver is a great place for us because it's near the mountains and it's easy to get outdoors, so when we're actually here, we have a playground in the form of the Rocky Mountains to have fun with.

OL: When I worked in Denver, I was working on a hybrid team, where some people work remotely and some people work in the office. What do you think it takes for these remote-only or hybrid teams, where some or all team members are distributed, to communicate effectively and successfully get it all done?

BP: I've worked in both the hybrid teams model and the fully-remote model, and I think there are more benefits to going fully-remote. Being a fully-remote company allows for a lot more freedom for employees, but I've found it also increases productivity. There are fewer questions around processes, less office drama or politics, and no sense of office envy, where office employees and remote employees are treated differently. Companies who make the decision to go fully-remote and apply those policies might have more success than the hybrid team model, only because everybody's doing it and the processes become much smoother over time. As companies already know, setting up remote work processes for only half of their employees is very hard to do.

That being said, whether you're a hybrid company or a remote company, communication is critical. Having very clear guidelines of how to communicate, and consciously over-communicating, is critical. At Buffer, we use Notion for our internal team wiki, and there we have a ton of resources about different situations, such as how to get in touch with a team member in a different time zone, how we use different tools for live or asynchronous communication, etc. We live and die by Zoom, Slack, Notion, and Gmail.

In the early stages of Buffer, we decided to make email transparent throughout the entire company. How that works is, we've set up Google Groups for the different internal teams at Buffer, and whenever you're communicating internally or with external stakeholders via email, you're responsible for bcc-ing the internal team Google Groups. This system serves as a communication log and an informal history of Buffer, so when you're onboarding new teammates, they can quickly catch up and get up to speed very quickly. We use Slack in the same way so team members can read threads to catch up in different time zones or when they come back from vacation.

That's my long-winded answer: that no matter how your team is structured, transparent and open communication is critical. Additionally, asynchronous communication on open channels like email or Slack is more valuable than video calls or in-person conversations in order to fully embrace remote work so employees can work from around the world and catch up when they're online next.

My wife and I have lived in eight different cities over the last two years, including New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver. We work while we travel, so for us, being digital nomads is a lifestyle that remote work empowers us to take advantage of.

OL: Are there any other must-have tools for remote or distributed or hybrid teams?

BP: My top tools for effective remote communication are:

1. An open communication tool, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams

2. A document-sharing and collaboration tool, like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper

3, An internal resource for company announcements and resources, such as Discourse or Notion

OL: What does your team look like now? Do any of you work geographically near one another, or are you fully distributed?

BP: The Buffer team is around 85 people whole, and I sit on the marketing team, which is about 10 people. I don't work with anyone else every day, but we have mini-hubs around the world where several Buffer employees live in the same general area. There are several people in Colorado, several people in the UK, and several people in Nashville, for example. Having multiple employees in different time zones is particularly important for our advocacy team who are available for our customers, so in the hiring process, we do think about how our employees' time zones will determine how we set up customer advocacy coverage, but employees can work remotely anywhere within those zones. And if they decide to travel or move, we figure it out, because we have processes and systems set up to let every employee do that.

OL: Do you ever meet up with the other Colorado Buffer people?

BP: We try to get together once a quarter. As a matter of fact, Buffer's CEO lives in Boulder now, so it's great to see him more often. Once a year, Buffer holds a team retreat in a different city. This year, we're going to San Diego, and in previous years, we were in Singapore and Madrid. We make it a priority to get together in-person once a year because we do see the benefits of face-to-face interaction and spending time with your teammates. Additionally, each division at Buffer gets together in-person once a year, so the marketing team went to Nashville last year. At a minimum, you see your teammates twice per year, but you might see people more frequently if you make an effort to work together with employees in your respective hub city.

OL: Is the company retreat a healthy mix of work and fun, or is it mostly about team-building and bonding?

BP: It's a healthy mix of work, fun, and team bonding. We let our customers know we'll be slower to respond at our team retreat for the week, and we'll set aside dedicated sessions throughout the day where employees can get their day-to-day work done or meet and brainstorm with their functional teams. We're usually there for five days, and then the Thursday of each week is a day off where we all do team activities. It's very much about work and play, but I think we tend to skew towards play because it's hard to work when you don't see people that often.

We also invite partners and spouses and significant others, so it's a bigger group than just our 85 employees. It's a nice example of work-life balance to have partners at the retreat because then they get to meet other partners, and it becomes a much closer-knit group of team members because we all get to know each other at work an in our personal lives.

OL: That must be nice for your wife, since you mentioned that she works remotely, too.

BP: Yes, she works remotely for InVision, so it's a nice way for her to build her network, which can be challenging when you're working remotely. It's great that both of us are able to do this so we can take advantage of the benefits together.

It can be tough when we live in a one-bedroom apartment and both have calls at the same time, so we've set up a system so both of us can be productive in separate spaces if we're both working from the same place.

Brian at The Webby Awards

OL: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have when it comes to building remote teams, or even allowing remote work in general?

BP: First and foremost, I think companies hold onto this ideal of the office culture, even if they say they want to embrace remote work. They want to embrace remote work because, frankly, it's a great recruiting tactic, but they still hold onto the office culture, usually from the "good old days" when the company was a startup. You can't have it both ways. I see and hear about companies all the time that have embraced working from home, not remote work, that don't necessarily understand the difference. Companies that allow working from home are still restricting employees to a certain schedule, location, and way of communicating that's almost identical to the office.

What these companies don't always realize is companies that fully embrace remote work and allow their employees to work anywhere and anytime are usually happier and more productive. Those companies' culture is thriving because the employees are happier.

The companies making mistakes and struggling to build a culture of remote work are holding onto old school office ideals about being in-person to come up with new ideas, and time spent at a desk to measure productivity. But I think if you break down the numbers, between commuting and in-person interaction, offices are likely less productive than remote teams.

I do admit that there's something missing from remote work in terms of the value of being around other people to derive energy that might impact productivity, but in a different sense.

OL: So, how can remote companies build and strengthen team culture when there isn't in-person camaraderie being built every day over lunch or at the water cooler?

BP: If you want to build or maintain the company culture when your team is distributed, you have to make it a deliberate effort. You have to hire someone who's responsible for making culture happen. At Buffer, our people team is dedicated to supporting new ways to bring us together when we're not physically together.

The fact of the matter is, remote work can be lonely. Almost half of the remote workers we surveyed said they found it lonely, and it is. You sit at your house all day, and if your spouse or roommate is there, that's wonderful, but that's still only one or two other people. Loneliness is hard to measure or fix, and it's bad for employee happiness and productivity, so there are a few ways companies can combat that.

The first strategy is making space for people to spend time together at work using video conferencing or live chat technology, such as Zoom or Slack. At Buffer, we have all-hands meetings that we call "company gatherings," where we'll get together on a video call, everyone brings a coffee or a tea or a beer, and we all sit and talk together, about work or about anything else. That way, we get face-to-face interaction that we're missing by working remotely.

The second strategy is building a positive remote company culture into policies and perks. Buffer offers us a $100 stipend every month to join a co-working space or work from a coffee shop, or anywhere else where you're productive. I've found that I'm a lot happier and healthier mentally when I get out of the house and work from a coffee shop or a co-working space a couple days a week. We're all human, and human interaction really does energize and revitalize a lot of people. One time, I remember realizing that I hadn't left the house in two days. I'd been working from home, and my gym was in the building, so I had no reason to leave, and it was a little sad.

In addition to that stipend, we also have a one-time office upgrade budget that we can use to outfit our home office so our time spent at work is as positive and productive as possible.

Companies that build employee happiness and human interaction into their perks will be the most successful remote companies in the end, and those are a few ways Buffer does it.

The companies that are making mistakes and struggling to build a culture of remote work are holding onto old school office ideals about being in-person to come up with new ideas, and time spent at a desk to measure productivity. But I think if you break down the numbers, between commuting and in-person interaction, offices are likely less productive than remote teams.

OL: What do you think is the biggest gap when it comes to making remote work more ubiquitous? Is it technology, leaders, company culture, or something else?

BP: Remote work has to be something that's built in the DNA of company leaders in order to get it right. One thing that's amazing about Buffer and a lot of other tech companies is they were founded and led by millennials. Millennials started out in the workplace knowing that you don't need to be in an office to be productive. The conflict we're seeing right now is that a lot of larger companies were founded before remote work was even a concept, and it's a lot harder to change a company to embrace remote work than it is to found a company to embrace it from day one. When companies get into the situation wherein half of the team is remote and half of the team is in an office, it's inevitable that communication and collaboration issues will come up.

Remote work doesn't work unless companies go all-in, and I think it's going to take some time to reverse-engineer remote work into the DNA of the workplace. It has to be company leadership that says, yes, we believe in remote work because we believe that we can do it, and we believe that it's not only a good thing for productivity, but it's also a great talent acquisition tool because we're not limited to hiring in a certain location.

I saw an interesting tweet recently that said a startup's biggest advantage is a remote employee, because they get four hours of extra productivity per day. I think that's so true – when most of the companies in the world are putting their employees into cars or trains commuting for four hours a day, startups with remote employees who are more focused during work hours without commuting is a huge advantage.

OL: I've read about how our productivity is highest as soon as we wake up, and then it gradually fades, because we get decision-making fatigue. Even making the little decisions you have to make to get from waking up in your house to commuting to getting into the office to getting your coffee, there's just so much less of that if you're working remotely and not commuting at all, so that's a great point.

BP: Exactly. Remote employees can run errands or go to the gym in the middle of the day to take a break, come back to work refreshed, and not feel stressed about the hassle of commuting and getting it all done at the end of the day. The value or that for productivity and, frankly, happiness, can't be understated.

OL: What do you think the future of work will look like in 10-20 years? Do you think it'll be more freelancers because they want to work remote? Do you think people will be gravitating towards those companies that allow remote work, or make it the norm?

BP: I hope it doesn't move to a freelancing world. I have a lot of feelings about freelancing, only because I think it's a cheap way for companies to employ labor without actually having to pay for health benefits or perks. I hope we get to a system where people are employed by companies and get the same freedom and flexibility that freelancing offers.

That being said, 10-20 years from now, we will absolutely see more widespread adoption of remote work, particularly as younger generations like millennials start founding and leading more companies, because they'll want to work remotely themselves.

As more cloud-based software and e-commerce companies sprout up, fewer people will need to work in an office to run the company. I hope we'll see more resources around building remote culture and remote work best practices for entrepreneurs seeking guidance for starting a company that's remote from the outset. I think this series is great for sharing education, best practices, and the challenges of remote work, culture, and collaboration. In 10-20 years, I hope 50% of companies or more will be fully-remote because they'll start to see that the global talent acquisition pool is a lot bigger, and that employee productivity, happiness, and retention are higher. Buffer's employee retention is incredibly high for a SaaS company. I've been here for three years, and a lot of our employees have been here for five or six years since the company was a startup.

OL: We pulled data about the state of remote work as well, and we found that companies that allow remote work experience 25% less employee turnover. It's such a huge cost to have to hire and onboard new people, but it's also worthwhile that companies are helping their employees grow with them. The adoption of remote work has made it possible for people to move out of expensive cities and buy homes and start families and continue their career if they want to. I love the idea of remote work making it easier for people not to have to leave a job they love just because they don't love the city they're in.

BP: You're right, it gives people an opportunity to live where they're happiest. That's so understated and not talked about enough, because it's valuable even if companies can't put a dollar amount on it on the company bottom line.

Key Takeaways

1. Technology helps remote teams work transparently and asynchronously.

Brian shares his experiences working on remote and distributed teams and cites using technology to communicate with extreme transparency to ensure smooth collaboration across different team members and time zones. For example, at Buffer, all teams are copied on email correspondence to make it easier for team members in different time zones to follow along with what others are working on.

2. Leaders need to make an effort to build a strong remote company culture.

In order to build a company culture that's strong and retains employees, remote team leaders need to build it into company policies and perks to make sure people are happy and motivated, even if they're not working with others every day. Brian cites Buffer's weekly all-hands meeting via Zoom and perks such as a co-working space stipend that help foster togetherness and interaction among its distributed team members.

3. Loneliness is the biggest challenge when it comes to building a strong remote team.

New research from Buffer cited loneliness as remote workers' biggest challenge in 2019. For all of the flexibility and convenience that remote work affords, employees and companies need to be conscious about creating systems and events that help people feel connected to their team members and other people around them. Buffer employees see their team members in-person at least twice per year, and some meet up with other employees living and working near them from time to time, too.

To learn more, read Buffer's and Owl Labs' state of remote work reports next.

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