Remote work continues to trend upward, with 2014 posting a 26% increase in open remote job postings over 2013 and 83% of hiring managers saying telecommuting will be "more prevalent in the next five years."
BuzzFeed is no stranger to working with remotes. In late 2014, BuzzFeed opened an office in Minneapolis with the talent acquisition of Hyper IQ. Since its inception, the Minneapolis office has grown rapidly and now makes up over 15% of the BuzzFeed Tech Team. There are also tech employees in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Portland, Maine, and more.
The biggest impediment to achieving success with remote teams is poor communication. Knowing this, BuzzFeed employs four key tactics for keeping communication clear and effective.
1. Good Old-Fashioned Emails
Working in an open office is a great way to facilitate informal communication. Impromptu hallway meetings and peek-over-the-monitor chats allow employees to share information and keep each other updated without too much effort or thought. But because that quality of interaction is not available for our remote employees, we make a conscious and consistent effort to keep all employees informed with regular emails.
Every week, the "Tech Buzz" email goes to all members of the Tech Team and includes important metrics, notable events, and a comprehensive breakdown of recent and upcoming development work. The tone of the email is clear and includes definitions of terms and explanations of projects when needed. The goal of the email is for an employee of any tenure to immediately understand the current state of all things BuzzFeed Tech. All "Tech Buzz" emails are archived in Google Groups so they can be accessed and we are currently working on new ways to make them easier to reference.
Later in the week, we send a "Project Spotlight" email to the Tech Team that presents a deeper dive into one project or feature. This gives individual teams a chance to showcase their hard work and the rest of the teams a chance to better understand their coworkers' efforts. Each email includes a brief explanation of the product or feature, screenshots and links, a breakdown of who did what, and some technical details about the development.
2. Super Onboarding
As our Tech Team began to scale rapidly, we put an immediate focus on the importance of onboarding. Making employees feel welcome and informed is key to improving productivity and reducing turnover. For overcoming the challenges of remote employees, we take three important steps:
First, we make sure that all onboarding information is easily available. We created a comprehensive onboarding package with an orientation document, a glossary, and a breakdown of the Tech Team (with headshots). It all lives in one place (for now, our GitHub wiki) and is easily accessible. The information is sent to them in anticipation of their start date and then reinforced on their first day.
Second, if possible, we bring all recently-hired remote employees to the New York office for our new-hire bootcamps. Every month, all new hires attend meetings where they learn the fundamentals of BuzzFeed. Having remote employees attend these meetings give them an opportunity to meet everyone in person and gain a better understanding of the environment and culture. We also have special tech-only bootcamp sessions where remotes get a detailed breakdown of the tech structure and can ask questions.
Finally, once new hires are on our office Slack, I personally reach out to them and add them to the #n00b-chat channel (a chat room where anyone can ask any question) and make sure they know that they have a resource at the company to help them get oriented. The one-to-one outreach, even via Slack, goes along way in establishing stronger relationships and making people feel safe to ask questions and seek help.
3. A Digital Water Cooler
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle in creating effective remote teams is not distance or time but the emotional and psychological barriers created when employees are not able to informally interact with each other. The same informal interactions mentioned above don't just help with work projects, they also help forge friendships and shape culture. When people get to know each other personally, they become better coworkers. Once again, Slack saves the day. A tech-only Slack group where employees can discuss anything provides a digital water cooler where remote employees are just as empowered to participate in conversations as local employees. It's a place for all of BuzzFeed Tech to share, learn, joke, insult, compliment, and bond.
4. Listening and Learning
Of all the ways we try to improve communication with our remote employees, this is the most basic and most effective. By staying engaged with our remotes and listening to their needs, we are able to make small but substantial improvements. A good example is a change we made to our weekly Tech Talks. Several of the remotes mentioned that during the Q&A portion of the meetings, they were unable to hear the questions. As a result, the answers were always confusingly out of context. Now, the presenter always repeats the question for employees who are dialed-in to the meeting before answering it. After we started asking presenters to follow this simple rule, we received a lot of positive feedback from the remotes who could now fully participate. It was simple listen, learn, and act change that didn't require any additional technology or costs but still made a big impact.
There is high-quality talent everywhere and creating a multi-location tech team is key to future success. By employing tried-and-true methods, using some new tools, and paying close attention to employee needs, any company can better maintain a connected, informed, productive, and happy remote team.