Hi there and thank you for listening to The Business Storyteller Podcast. My name is Wilson and I’m your host for today’s episode. In today’s episode, we’re exploring how to build a great workplace culture. I’m delighted to be joined by one of the best companies out there and my personal favorite in creating great workplace culture.
It’s my privilege to speak with Nicole Miller, who’s the Senior People Ops Manager at Buffer. Nicole has been a part of Buffer for seven years, seeing the team grow from 25 to 95. She’s passionate about family inclusion, remote work, and values-driven company cultures. In her spare time, she writes novels and tends a small farm in Southwest Washington state with her husband and two young sons.
Hi Nicole, welcome to The Business Storyteller Podcast today and I’m so glad to have you with us. How are you doing?
I’m doing well. Thank you so much for having me. I am very honored.
I’m so excited to speak with you today. Before we go any further, I’m sure our listeners would love to know you better. Maybe you can tell us more a bit about your career journey and also what led to your current role at Buffer?
Yeah, I’d love to. I started out in marketing and social media at a couple of universities. And so it’s very much in the traditional realm of corporate-type jobs, but I was using Buffer on the side to try to work up a side business so that I could work from home because I thought that was the only way I could work from home was like running my own business. When I was upgrading my Buffer plan at that time, this was back in 2014, I thought they were hiring and I totally just threw my hat in the ring. I was going to see what would stick and it worked out really well.
I joined when we were still 24-26 teammates. It was really early on and I joined as the Community Champion. So it was a community-facing role and got to do a lot of things around shaping how we viewed community efforts at Buffer. And then that over the years evolved. I started helping promote and come up with a family leave policy and doing some internal people team-type policies and suggestions.
When we started restructured a little bit within Buffer and when we find we grew large enough to end up needing a people team, I kind of ended up shifting into an HR-type role at Buffer, which was really fun. I have over the years been in all sorts of general HR people ops-type roles, everything from engagement to performance reviews to hiring and everything in between.
That’s a great journey that you had at Buffer! I’m so glad to reconnect with you because I remembered back in 2016, I had the chance to be a part of Buffer’s Twitter Squad, where Buffer open up for volunteers and non-Buffer employees to help manage their Twitter account. If there’s one thing I know about Buffer is that since then, you all have led the path for creating great workplace culture. In fact, you’ve inspired so many out there including us at Piktochart. Our decision to go for a four-day workweek week was actually inspired by companies such as Buffer. Thank you for leading the path for that.
Thank you. I’m so glad and it’s always been so comforting and reassuring to hear that it’s helping other companies. Vice versa, it helps both ways.
I’m excited to get our conversation going and today we’re talking all things about company culture. The word workplace or company culture can be a buzzword at times, but for yourself as an expert with years of experience in building the workplace culture at Buffer, would you mind sharing why does Buffer invests so much in building your culture?
Yeah, that’s a great one. I think early on in Buffer’s history, a little bit before I came, the co-founders really took to heart some of the words from other companies that had been pioneering like HubSpot and Netflix and things like that, where it really came down to making sure that if you didn’t identify and cultivate a company culture, then it would happen unintentionally or it would maybe sort of show itself in a way that you may be didn’t want it to sort of look.
The foundation of that was really naming our company values and then from there, it kind of expanded because once you have your foundation of values, we used that as the foundation for transparency initiatives because transparency is one of our core values. And so then that helped pave the way for sharing our salaries transparently with the world and when it came to different initiatives, benefits, or policies that we have, a lot of that would be founded in the values itself.
So having that really early on and having our founders really bought in from the start has really led this to be very successful and I think a very easy thing in that respect is that we just default to making sure that our company culture and our values align.
That’s such a great insider story. You mentioned transparency and we’ll cover a bit about that later because one of our previous guests actually mentioned that. Thank you for giving us an insider story about the workplace culture at Buffer. I’m sure that from your sharing, our listeners would be inspired to see the importance of doing that in their own company.
So we talked about the present. Maybe let’s talk about the future as well. How do you foresee workplace culture affecting the future of organizations, especially when it comes to recruiting and employee retention?
Yeah, I think now more than ever and this is definitely the year of the great resignation and a lot of employee movement from one company to another. I think that when it comes to employer branding and culture being very tangible and very visible, then it will give your company a leg up because hopefully, you’re finding the people who really are going to be aligned with that company culture and who are going to want to be there.
We’ve always had the perspective too that we don’t want to be the place that everyone is going to be completely happy at. We realized that not everyone’s going to agree with our core values and that’s great. They can find another company hopefully that is more aligned with their values. And so I think defining your company culture allows you to find the people who will be successful and to better highlight the ones who won’t be as successful in your company culture.
That goes to speak to both recruiting and retention and understanding that if things aren’t feeling great then maybe it’s not the right match in one way or the other and we don’t ever want to be a place where you feel beholden to stay. If you’re not happy, we want to encourage people to be where they’re happiest and most productive. Whether or not that’s in Buffer is up to the individual themselves.
I think the more companies that are transparent about their company culture. We believe in being as transparent about our successes as we are about our failures so that people know what they’re getting themselves into. We’ve been very open about a lot of our mistakes on our blog, which has been really helpful and I do feel gives us a little bit of a vulnerability and a little bit of humility as a company. And if anything, it has been more attractive for applicants in a lot of ways, so I think that the companies that really put a focus on their culture and promote that I think are going to be stronger when it comes to retention and recruitment.
I appreciate the fact that you mentioned that the company doesn’t have to be like the right place for every single one. Even at Piktochart, we picked that up from Buffer that when we are hiring for people, it’s not so much about looking for the right person to work for us, but also making sure that we are the right company for the other person. And when there’s a culture fit, I think there’s so much more that we could do together. Thank you for sharing a bit about that on what you see with the future of employee retention and recruiting.
We can’t be on a storytelling podcast without talking about brand story. You shared a bit about the unique culture at Buffer, but how has that helped to shape the company’s brand story today?
I think a lot of it goes back to values for us. The values have been the foundation and the cornerstone for us and it really has been the place that we fall back to during the ups and downs of our story. We’ve been very honest and transparent about the fact that in 2016, we didn’t forecast our finances very well. We realized we were running out of funds and we had to lay people off and cut some projects. We cut out our retreat for that year and made some changes to get ahead of that. That was a really painful process for us and we had a lot of tough learnings from that.
But one of the things we did was really fell back to our values and stuck with the transparency side of it. We’re very open with our employees and we were also very open with our customers. We had a time back in 2012 when Buffer was hacked and we live blogged essentially the way we were trying to address it and fix it and we connected with our customers who are very encouraging and really understanding about the fact that their service was being interrupted.
Because we’ve had that connection with our customers around our values and they see our values in action, I think it’s changed the way our story could have gone. We could have had really bad publicity from being hacked as a tool when people’s accounts are being messed with, but instead, it turned into a really positive experience and a lot of our customers had a lot of faith in us and appreciated us because of the transparency.
So I think the culture and the values have helped shape what could be potentially really rough scenarios and rough pieces of our stories into something that has come out okay, and things that have been very positive components of our story.
Thanks for sharing. I recall the story back in 2016 and I remember reading the blog post about the difficult decisions that you all have to make but I think that was so helpful, even though it may be a painful process for all of you, which I’m sure is challenging but I think it’s still helpful even for many companies out there to be able to learn from those lessons and make sure that they can also implement the learnings in their own companies. Thanks for sharing that and being so transparent even with the company culture and values.
That leads us to our next question. In one of our previous episodes, we had Mick Griffin from Traffit and he was sharing how Buffer’s transparency model inspired their own company to adopt a similar approach at their own place. He was talking about Buffer’s Default Transparency Value, where Buffer shares about the salaries, diversity, open-source code, and product road map. Would you mind telling us more about the what and the why behind this value?
We had this very early on. It was something I think that we sort of experimented with and felt was going to be a great way to do business. I think what has become has been more of a movement in some way. For us, it’s been a great way to do business. We also view transparency in the way that we view not everyone being the right fit for Buffer and that not every company needs to be transparent and other companies can have different levels of it.
For us when we especially decided to be a fully remote company in a fully distributed company, transparency became the way that we were working effectively and that in order to get things done, in order to build trust with our teammates and with our customers, we found that transparency was just the most impactful tool that we had at our disposal. It really creates a very strong bond with our employees. We’re able to really say we trust you and we’re going to be honest with you about things so that you trust us and that’s been really great.
The same thing with customers, we had transparent pricing of the product, which is helpful to break down. How much goes to AWS cost per month and things like that and it’s just helpful to see and I think that with us as a small company and us as a global company itself that we’re able to sort of bridge a lot of gaps by being transparent and just having it all out in the open.
I think the transparency has enabled a lot of us to be honest and share things in our open blog and lessens the amount of should I say this or should I not? So there’s a lot more freedom within the company as an employee to sort of say what you feel like you need to say because we have a culture of transparency and we always fall back to that.
So it started with one thing and then that went well and so it was like let’s do the salaries and that was well-received. And then it was like what else can we make transparent? We’re always asking what else can we do and we have other ideas down the line that we’re going to work on. One day hopefully very soon, it’s on our to-do list, but we want to have our company handbook be fully transparent. Other things as well because we know that it does impact other companies who are starting out and if people can copy and paste what we do and use it and help them get further ahead from learning from our mistakes, that’s fantastic. We love those sorts of things.
We love seeing when other companies copy and paste the benefits we have. We see it on their job site. That’s just fantastic and we love seeing it. It’s the ultimate form of flattery when we see people replicating what we’ve done.
That’s so inspiring to see how you all are willing to be transparent not only with your employees but also with your customers. In fact, when I was speaking with Mick, he was saying that when they were discussing about transparency model in their own company, his CEO doesn’t really know what Buffer is as a product. But when they were looking for a social media management tool, Mick was like “we have Buffer”. So that’s what Buffer was doing. And then that’s how they became customers.
Similarly for us at Piktochart, we were first drawn to your culture first, even before the product. And then we remember Buffer immediately when we needed a social media management tool. Kudos on that and well done!
I love it when those stories happen either way. We love seeing that.
In relation to transparency as well, maybe you can share with us how has Buffer’s culture benefited your organization as a whole, both internally and externally?
I think it’s just so inextricably linked it would be hard to untangle one way or the other, decisions being made and discussed around the framework of our values. Thinking about how every hiring choice we’ve made, values is a part of the interview process and how we’ve had to make different decisions based on someone maybe not feeling completely aligned with our values and just the line in the sand of that tends to draw, which I think is really important and speaks to how we want to work together versus just like what we get done.
That creates this sense of when you talk with a fellow teammate for the first time, you have this shared sense of values. You feel like you’ve known them. You feel like you’ve been friends with them for years at that point. You have it with people even at other companies who have heard of Buffer’s values and heard of what we’re doing, and you have that really great foundation and you’re completely bought into it and appreciate it.
That’s a really powerful thing that fuels us, when we went on retreats, how you would get to know someone was the foundation of values and shared culture and you would have a deeper relationship and a deeper sense of trust as a co-worker and a teammate. And so that has just really I think let us to work more effectively as a team and just strengthened all corners of it for sure.
I’m reminded also how the foundation of value is so important because people may change. They may come and go and even your product may change over time, but the value remains the same. That’s the thing that would keep the company together. I’m just so inspired to hear that is the foundation at Buffer with all the culture that you have.
We’ve heard so many success stories out there about great workplace culture, but we also hear about stories of those who have found it challenging in building this. Maybe you can share with us what are some of the setbacks or challenges that one can expect when they are in the process of building company culture?
I think early on one of the examples was we first really defined our values back when we were 12 or 13 teammates. It was a little bit before I came. We put our values down in writing. There really was an evaluation o does everyone feel aligned in this? What ended up happening was we did decide to let a few people go who didn’t feel completely in line with this new set of values and directions.
That was certainly I think a hard thing to go through. It’s definitely a hard thing when you might have a really valuable candidate in front of you, but if it doesn’t feel like they’re going to be very aligned with the values and that there might be some friction there, it’s a slippery slope at that point too, because if you give in on one component, then it might create resentment. It might create disharmony amongst the team, you might have a different level of communication and collaboration.
I think for us, there have been times where we had to make the tough choices. But again, I think we also try to frame it as that person maybe wouldn’t have been happy here in the long run anyway. And so keeping the right frame of mind is important. But I think too we’ve had mistakes that we’ve made in the name of our values, we did a classically experiment where we tried transparent feedback, where we gave feedback to each other, sometimes constructive feedback in public and that was awkward and not a great idea, and I wouldn’t recommend it. And so we quit that pretty quickly and wrote a blog post about it and why we are not going to do it again. There are lots of mistakes.
The one thing I’ve always appreciated about us at Buffer is that if we make a mistake or if we do an experiment that completely fails, as long as we write a good open blog post about it and get to share that learning with everyone else, it’s a total success in that way. So it really frees you up to make some healthy mistakes and to keep a good perspective on what you’re able to do and not to do.
I think one can expect to make some healthy mistakes when it comes to building great workplace culture. So thank you for being transparent in sharing. That has really like I said, helped a lot of companies out there. We read a lot of Buffer’s blog and even the things that we do, we look into the lessons that you’ve learned from your own. Thanks for doing that.
Well, today Buffer is of course recognized and well known for its great company culture. As an expert yourself in your journey at Buffer for seven years, could you share with us your top three actionable tips for building a great workplace culture?
The first one I would mention is if you don’t have a set of company values, at least kick off a discussion. It doesn’t have to be something that’s absolutely set in stone. It could be something of like, this is something, this is a value or an idea that we want to work toward and kind of facilitate discussions. Maybe have a Slack channel where you can talk about that topic and inspiring books about it or whatever that is but just try to kind of keep that aspirational component in mind of what we’re trying to solve for, or what we can all get behind and support. I think that’s a good one.
I do think that when you’re working towards great workplace culture, you need to have some element of transparency or openness or the freedom to give feedback in a way that’s safe and perhaps anonymous, perhaps not anonymous. Perhaps do some focus groups, things like that. So being able to build trust between the employer and the employees and the employees upward as well is very important.
And then I think the third thing is to put some effort into the onboarding component of your culture. One thing that I found very successful for us at Buffer is having a culture buddy for every new hire. We give them a role buddy, they have their manager, and then also a culture buddy. So three people very dedicated to them for the first 90 days of their tenure and the culture buddy has sort of a curriculum to go through about Buffer’s history, talking about our inside jokes, talking about why we use specific GIFs in Slack, and why we use certain emojis and making sure that they feel included and sort of up to speed on some of these random jokes that otherwise would feel kind of like uninclusive if you don’t know the story behind them. We put specific teammates in charge of being culture buddies and that has been a really helpful way to make sure everyone kind of feel up to speed on all the quirks and strange things about Buffer.
We have our own vocabulary at Buffer and so we go through that list of unique words and why this word or this phrase means something. Like we use the ceiling cat emoji a lot, so understanding why we use the ceiling cat emoji so much, that sort of thing. So that’s a really fun way to sort of introducing people to the workplace culture and solidify why these things are around. It’s a great place too for the new hires to give you feedback about that culture in and of itself. So kind of having an open dialogue between the buddies and new hires as well.
I love those three actionable tips, especially the one on culture buddy. I think that’s a really great one to help get new employees up to speed. That’s something that we could also consider in a lot of companies to have that. We’re coming to the last question and this is usually the trickiest question but what are some of your favorite examples of companies who are nailing it at building a great workplace culture?
Such a good one. Well, I’ve always heard of Piktochart and I know that that you all have been doing a great job. I know that Remote.co is doing very well and they are an arising company. Donut.ai is a tool that we use a lot of at Buffer and I know their company is also very great and fun in that respect. Threads is another company that I think is doing pretty well. I’ve chatted a little bit with them.
There are some really great things happening and I love this focus on it. I do feel like companies are now more open to it than ever. It’s an exciting time and I think the shift in remote work has created some great opportunities to try new things, to try new habits, and test out new ways of working. So, I’m very glad to see all of this kind of come around.
Well, thanks for sharing some of your favorite companies out there and for name-dropping Piktochart as well. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much for coming on our podcast and sharing so many valuable and helpful insights with us today, Nicole. I’ve truly enjoyed learning more about building a great workplace culture. I’m sure our HR person will also enjoy this episode. So thank you for being on the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m very grateful for your time.
Now, before we wrap up this episode, I’d love to ask you some fun questions. This is to help our listeners to learn about what inspires you. My first question for you is this, what is your favorite movie that you recommend to anyone?
I always go to the movie ‘Secondhand Lions’ and it’s this lesser-known movie, but it has Robert Duvall and Michael Caine in it. It’s a really just heartwarming family tale with some tearful moments and some really funny moments. It’s just one of my overall favorites.
I’m definitely going to add that into my movie playlist to check out. And what about your favorite book?
This one is a tough one. I’m very into reading so I have a lot of favorites. I think one of the most enjoyable reads I have had in a long time was called ‘West With The Night’. It’s by a 1930-1940s era, a bush pilot who was a woman who had all these amazing adventures and it’s her autobiography. It’s a really fun amazing story and it was just a really quick read and really cool. It’s been around forever. I think it was out in the ’80s so that one was a fun one to check out.
Sounds like a great adventure. My last question for you is this, if you are not in the SaaS industry today or with Buffer, what do you envision yourself doing?
That’s a good one. I have a journalism background and I love to write stories and blogs and things like that. So I’d probably be in some sort of writing whether that was fiction writing or magazine writing or something like that. I’d probably be writing somewhere.
I think that connects back to also what you do in your spare time. Well, that was fun. I trust our listeners have certainly enjoyed knowing you better and what inspires you. Before we conclude, how can our listeners reach you or stay connected with you, Nicole?
Definitely. I am @nmillerbooks on Twitter or @nicolemillerbooks on Instagram. I’m also on LinkedIn. You can find me by hunting down Buffer’s LinkedIn. We are hiring for a few roles so you can definitely find me there and I’m really excited to stay connected. I have a few blogs on our open.buffer.com blog so you can always look there to see what we’re up to and we’ll have some new articles coming out soon. Lots to see there.
That’s great. Do be sure to stay connected with Nicole and also check out Buffer if you haven’t. Once again, thank you Nicole for coming on this episode of The Business Storyteller Podcast. It’s great to be chatting with you today and that’s all for today’s episode. Until the next one.
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