Lessons Learned from Companies Who Have Been Working Remotely

The phrase “business as usual” is never going to be the same again.

COVID-19 has flipped society upside-down and not only has it reeked havoc on our personal lives, but our professional lives as well.

With the new reality setting in, many start-ups have had to completely change the way they do business. While some of these changes will be temporary, others will become permanent and one of those permanent changes is going to be the reality of remote work.

Fearing remote work is completely valid. Change is difficult and sometimes downright terrifying, especially when it’s so large and sudden like the Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named 😉.  

Even I was anxious about the idea of running a remote team when all of this started. I had so many questions racing through my head with the most important one being, where am I going to get my morning caffeine fix if not from the local Bridgehead down the street? (pro tip: order a Nespresso machine, it has been my saving grace.)

In this blog post, I’m going to share strategies from the most effective remote teams and explain how you can adopt their best practices in your own remote team. 

How to Manage Work From Home Effectively

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Now that we’ve addressed the most vital issue lets all take a deep breath and remain calm (yeah, yoga has been a big help too 😂) because remote work isn’t new. Many workplaces have used hybrid models (where some staff work in office and others completely remotely) for a while now, while some have transitioned to remote offices all together such as Buffer, Zapier, and Shopify just to name a few.

But what has made these companies so successful at online work? How have other companies pivoted in light of the pandemic??....... Can managers  learn from these remote companies to successfully adapt their teams to the remote work culture?

To help you uncover the answers to these questions, I’ve put together a small ‘case-study’ on companies who do remote work best.


I will compare Buffer, an experienced remote work company, and Shopify a company that has recently made a successful online transition to a remote work culture. Each case study will include a company description, insight on why they transitioned to remote work, and key takeaways you can use to elevate your remote team’s performance today.

Let’s get into it! 

Daily Life at a Fully Remote Company: Buffer 

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Who are they? 

Buffer is a software application company designed for web and mobile. The purpose of the product is to provide a tool for companies to help manage their social media accounts. It provides calendar, scheduling, and analytic tools for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn to save time and help companies better engage with their audiences.  

The company is made up of a team of 85 people, in 18 different countries, across 10 different time zones, and without any central head office. 🤯

I know …. I was flabbergasted too. Just thinking about those kinds of management processes makes my feet sweat. So why did they do it?


Why did they go online? 

Remote work is nothing new to Buffer. The company has been around for about a decade, with half of that time having been spent online. They made the decision to ditch their office and move to online work in 2015.

Buffer originally started in the U.K., but because of the nature of the company’s platform (i.e. the social media space) it was important to find a base in San Francisco or Silicon Valley as this would serve to be a huge advantage in serving partnerships and integrations. 

In 2013, Buffer made the necessary move and four of the nine-person team relocated to San Francisco. This became short lived as the visa problems forced members to leave the U.S. 

Buffer decided to come up with a new tactic to fight the need to be in San-Francisco but having teammates in other locations. They decided to start hiring qualified people from wherever they were which caused the company to become remote naturally. 

This meant it was time to make a decision: go fully remote, set up shop in one spot, or adopt a hybrid model. Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, wanted to avoid a divide in the company. He felt that it was no good to have clusters of teams sporadically spread throughout the world, nor did he want to forcefully displace anybody. This left him only one choice, to become a fully remot company. 

This meant it was time to make a decision: go fully remote, set up shop in one spot, or adopt a hybrid model.

So in the end, Buffer became a fully remote company by accident (due to impending circumstances) … kind of like right now.  

Three Lessons YOU Can Learn from Buffer 

With such a wealth of experience at being online it’s safe to say we could all learn a thing or two from Buffer to find success in our own remote work. I have narrowed it down to three main practices that I think Buffer does best and that would best help us in our remote teams. 

1. Focusing on output instead of input

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To tackle the fear of ensuring that employees are doing their work, Buffer uses goal setting. This helps the company ensure that employees are engaged with their work and staying on task. 

Everyone’s goals are set according to their team’s needs and must be met according to a project or weekly basis (depending on the manager). In this way, Buffer uses employee output as a sign that individuals are putting in the necessary hours to get the job done. 

Consistent project output in accordance to set goals becomes the gold standard of working at Buffer. Not only does it increase trust among the team, but it also helps employee’s mental well being as they feel the satisfaction of achieving their set objectives. 

Consistent project output in accordance to set goals becomes the gold standard of working at Buffer 

At Buffer, it’s not about clocking in and clocking out, it’s about following through on deliverables. Measuring employee output allows Buffer to properly track employee progress, while also allowing autonomy in employee work hours. 

An example of goal focused work can be found by looking at Buffer’s marketing team. Kevan Lee explains their process as setting “. . . quarterly goals that tie into larger marketing team goals which tie into annual Buffer company goals. . . [for example, these] might have to do with launches . . . on the horizon” (We Work Remote).

2. The Remote Workers Toolkit

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Whatever you do, don’t skimp out on tools. 

You don’t expect a carpenter to build you a bookshelf without wood, nails and hammer do you?  The same goes for your remote employees. If you want your employees to do good work, then you must supply them with the essential tools to do so. For example, if you have an in-house graphic designer make sure you are paying for that full Adobe bundle. 

If you want your employees to do good work, then you must supply them with the essential tools to do so.

Quality and quantity are also both essential features to keep in mind when choosing tools for your remote team.

Whether you choose to use many different types, or only a few premium tools it’s vital that you choose tools that best suit your team’s needs. If you need the premium features such as paid analytics for social media then don’t be afraid to spend that extra coin.

Don’t be afraid to have multiple different tools either. For example, to ensure there are fewer miscommunications and unwanted conflicts between teammates it may be best to invest in numerous communication tools, even for the small stuff like employee gratifaction. Again, let's look at Buffer to illustrate this point. 

The company goes above and beyond when it comes to communication tools. Buffer even chooses to add a small application called Hey Taco to their regular Slack chat for employee recognition. 

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Hey Taco is a top rated HR and team culture app. It’s a platform meant for team recognition with the intention of building happier teams and inspiring positive communication amongst members.

Now, while it may be fun to think of the many tools you could add to your team’s repertoire, keep in mind you don’t want to overload them either. If they have too many tools to manage at once tasks and objectives are bound to get lost and too many notifications from too many different places may impede on employee productivity. 

Beyond investing smartly in your team's tools, also ensure that they’re made widely available throughout all members of the company. By making tools widely available you ensure your entire team has access to them, which helps to avoid unnecessary miscommunication. 

3. Creating Cultural Transparency in the Virtual Workspace  

Trust is the foundation of a successful remote office. Increased autonomy through remote work means that you have to have faith in your employees to get their work done and deliver on important projects. 

One of the best and easiest ways to create trust is through transparency. 

The practice of transparency establishes trust because it provides an honest environment where people know what to expect and can then make decisions accordingly. 

Buffer is actually famous for its profound transparency, they even share a salary calculator with individual salaries alongside their equity formula. 

Now that we’ve taken some advice from the old pros, let’s see what a fresh perspective from Shopify can give us as we learn proper practice for the remote workplace. 

Shopify is Going All-In On Remote Work 

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Who are they? 

Shopify is an Ottawa owned, multinational e-commerce company. They offer online retailers a set of program services including payments, marketing, customer engagement tools, etc., to help small businesses simplify the process of running an online store. 

The company briefly overtook RBC on the Toronto Stock Exchange as Canada’s most valuable company. 🤯

Shopify has more than 5,000 employees spread throughout Canada and around the world and plans to keep its office closed indefinitely. 

Why did they go online? 

When concern around public safety hit the news, Shopify was one of the first companies to announce their entire company would work remotely in response to COVID-19.

Beyond the obvious health concerns Shopify was also facing the increasing real estate prices which made going fully remote look even sweeter. Not only would it become a smart HR move, but also a logical finance move as well. 

Although Shopify has yet to know exactly what their fully remote transition will look like, CEO Tobi Lutke, is confident about their adaptability as they have prior experience with online employees. 

Given the fact that Shopify has already worked with a remote hybrid model where half of their world-wide staff worked entirely online, they know what process will and won’t work as they make their move to becoming a fully remote company. 

Three Lessons YOU Can Learn from Shopify: 

Although Shopify does not share the same wealth of experience as Buffer does when it comes to managing remote employees, the company is famous for the ability to adapt to the ever changing tech-business landscape. They are not afraid to take a fresh perspective when tackling a problem such as online work and I think we could all learn three important lessons from their approach of managing online employees. 

1. Encourage Your Employees to Disconnect: 

Burnout is real even when working from home and in a time of crisis healthy work-life boundaries have become more important than ever. 

One of the best ways to help your employees avoid burnout is to encourage them not to overwork and to disconnect on a healthy basis. At Shopify some teams encourage their members to send an “out of the office” notification when they sign off for the day, to help support the balance of employee’s professional and personal lives. 

One of the best ways to help your employees avoid burnout is to encourage them not to overwork and to disconnect on a healthy basis.

It’s also important to remind employees to take healthy breaks and disconnect from technology all together during a day. 

As Shopify Content Marketing Specialist Adam Rogers says, “. . . time away from the screen is a must, but [we don’t want employees replacing] that with more time looking at a different screen . . .” (2020, Elliot Monique). 

If you are looking to help your employees reduce their overall screen time think about a team bonding activity like a book club, or assign them readings for work. This will not only help them learn and increase their professional skills, but it will also get them away from that toxic blue light. 

Shopfiy also encourages their employees to take appropriate work breaks such as getting up every hour to get a coffee or stretch. To help their employees implement this into their daily working routine Shopify’s Senior Developer, Liam Griffin, explains how managers at Shopify try to “. . . [book] meetings in blocks of 25 minutes rather than 30 to give [employees] a quick break to stretch or have a quick walk. . .” (2020, Elliot Monique).

2. Evolve your team culture:  

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During these uncertain times only one thing is for sure and that is the fact that everything is changing. 

Remote work will not only change physical location and day to day operations but it will also change the culture of your workplace. 

I encourage you to not only accept this fact, but to embrace it. As Tobi Lutke mentions, use this time as an opportunity to evolve and better your team culture. Take what has worked best for you in the office and try to implement that into remote work such as a daily routine among all employees. For more tips and tricks to take your culture remote, check out the article, How to Build and Sustain a Remote Culture.

For Shopify, one of those daily routines has been “the virtual water cooler.” To encourage daily interactions within the remote workplace Shopify has kept some chat rooms on Slack open 24/7.

This allows employees to chit chat during their breaks despite what hours they find themselves working. One example of these water cooler chats is the pet chat where employees send different pictures of their pets in cute poses. 

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It’s important to remember that you don’t want casual chats to become a distraction which means you must set ground rules around them such as no gossip or negative discussions.  

3. Four Ways to Effectively Communicate in the Virtual Workplace:

Staying connected with your team is crucial. One of the best ways to do that is through effective instant messaging apps and effective virtual meetings and webinars. 

For tips on how to run an effective webinar checkout my blog: The Webinar Preparation Playbook.

In other words,creating the best communication system among your remote team is enabling the right communication systems at the right times. 

Shopify has compiled a list of what platforms to use depending on what type of message you are trying to convey: 

✅ Email - when you need to communicate after hours and want an in-depth recording of conversations to refer back to. 

✅ Instant messaging - best for quick interactions such as an urgent question.

✅ Video chat - ideal for interviews, complex constructive feedback, to create better understanding, or just to feel a better overall sense of connection among team members. 

✅ Short pre-recorded videos - perfect for training or presentation slide shows. 

Your 6 Takeaways

From this mini 'case-study' we have learned the essentials to help tackle our new virtual working reality. Here are some ideas on how you can apply these lessons to your startup:

  1. Focus on Deliverable Output vs. Time Spent - for your startup this may look like setting up weekly and monthly goals for each employee within their job description. By focusing on setting goals and making sure those goals are accomplished in a timely manner you will engage your team in their work and they will naturally stay on task putting in the necessary work hours to get their projects done. 

  1. Use Tools Effectively - make sure you have the right tools for the job with the correct features. Also look at setting-up tools in accordance to work themes. For example, using Slack and Google Hangouts for communication, Click-up and Google Calendars for measuring goals and productivity, and using Later and Buffer for social media scheduling and analytics. 

  1. Be Transparent to Create Trust - Don’t be afraid to overshare in a professional context. If you plan on working slightly different hours than the rest of your teams because of personal reasons then share that with them and let them know what times you will be out of the office and when you will be available for contact. 

  1. Take Time To Disconnect - your employees will never reach their full potential if they are overworked. While productivity is important so is rest. Tell employees to set in and out of office for themselves and turn off notifications during times when they choose not to be available. Make it a team effort by having members report when they are in and out of the office.

  1. Evolve Your Culture - your workplace is not going to be the only thing changing with remote work, how you interact with each other and your overall work culture will change as well. Don’t be afraid of this change, instead embrace it and work hard to implement new strategies and take from old ones that worked in the past. For example, host a daily standup at the beginning of the work day to touch base with each other, check in and share some personal aspects too. 

  1. Never Stop Communicating - communication is the foundation of your business, especially in remote work. Dedicate some time to learn how to properly communicate with your team members and what platforms are best used for specific purposes. Don’t be afraid to sit down with your team and set out proper communication rules. Discuss how you want feedback to be presented, rules for video calls and guidelines for non-work related discussions over chat. 

Overall remember to be kind to yourself during this time. This pandemic is hard on all of us and we all have different toolkits that allow us to deal with it in our own way. 

Adjust your expectations according to what works for you and don’t expect things to be the same as before COVID. Embrace the change and role with the punches. We will all get through this. Hopefully these 6 lessons will help your adjustment to remote work be a success.

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