Telework: what managers and HR could learn from Buffer's "3 buddy" system

For many teams that were suddenly forced to work from home and collaborate exclusively online, the constraints imposed by the pandemic may seem excruciating. Many companies may have overcome the initial challenges (cybersecurity, choice of tools to communicate), but have not yet really changed their culture to make the most of telework. You may be waiting to go back to “normal”, return to the office and your habits of the past, as if nothing had happened. But beyond the period of crisis we are all going through, there are long-term processes you could implement now to take advantage of the situation.

A lot of companies have decided to extend their WFH arrangements. Furthermore many UK workers would like to work from home more often in the future than they did before the lockdown. Telework is not a flash in the pan. It’s not just a short-term solution in an exceptional situation. It’s a phenomenon that’s been on the rise for years. The internet and the ubiquity of the means of communication have made it “normal” to work from home and collaborate remotely. The current period will last long enough for us to learn things that will permanently transform management.

This is why the ideas and methods developed by companies without offices, like Buffer, Basecamp, Automattic, or Gitlab, now seem relevant to a host of other companies. Yesterday, these companies were the exception. Today they no longer are. More importantly, what they learned can serve others (even companies that do intend to return to the office one day). What if these companies had found ideas, solutions, methods that could be useful to all companies today? It is certainly true of the “3 buddy” system developed by Buffer.

Buffer is a startup that develops tools for managing social network accounts (community management). It has a team scattered all over the world. From the beginning, Buffer’s blog has had a dual purpose: to share quality content about community management and the use of the Buffer app, and content about remote work to promote the employer brand of this company without an office. From the outset, they’ve also given the subject of remote induction (onboarding) a lot of thought.

The buddy system was designed for remote induction (onboarding) around 2014. Although it was modified over time, the original idea of the triple relationship on which it is still based is filled with lessons for management, beyond the induction process itself. Here is what the system consists in:

Each new recruit is paired with three “buddies” for induction: a “leader-buddy”, a “role-buddy” and a “culture-buddy”. These buddies are introduced to them when they join the team and accompany/help/coach them throughout their induction phase.

  • The leader-buddy is a team member with a lot of experience who is used to having honest conversations about the company’s values and expectations. He/she is probably the closest thing to a typical manager in this role. He/she is also the person with whom the new recruit will talk about career options in the company.
  • The role-buddy is someone who knows the role the employee is supposed to play in the team. He/she is there both to answer questions and to teach them the role. He/she is a peer who does more or less the same job and will be able to answer more technical questions. The role-buddy is a reflection of the new recruit, but is more advanced in their career. The role-buddy is meant to have a close relationship with the new recruit.
  • The culture-buddy is an experienced member who has proven his/her ability to assess the fit between employees and company culture. Their role is to help the recruit learn the specifics of the company’s culture. This person is the most senior of the three, and can help the young recruit understand the company’s long-term vision, culture and strategy. The frequency of the relationship is naturally less sustained than with the other two. There’s no need to talk to each other every week!

The system has evolved since 2014 as Buffer has moved away from its induction process as a 45-day bootcamp, which could be experienced as anxiety-inducing (it was in fact a testing period), to a more unified process that is supposed to provide more “psychological safety” to recruits from day one. Nevertheless, the idea of the triple relationship was largely kept. And this idea is useful beyond the induction period.

Indeed, the system offers employees more diverse managerial relationships than they would normally enjoy in a distributed team. It is a way of generalising forms of mentoring that are beneficial over time. It redistributes managerial functions more horizontally and helps individuals rapidly expand their networks. And the more people you know in a company, the more effective you can be in your work.

As far as the buddies are concerned, it is an opportunity to get involved in the development of the team, to play the role of mentor or coach, to leverage the value of their experience and knowledge. The system increases staff motivation and retention. (This is why Google also set up a similar system).

In the period of the pandemic, as many people are new to remote work, there is much to be gained from drawing inspiration from ideas such as the “3 buddy” system. And there are two questions related to the principles underlying the Buffer system that can help any company move forward:

  • What communication channels should you choose for what use, and with what frequency of communication? You can’t constantly communicate in a synchronous way (by phone or video). You can’t expect managers to do things the same way they used to when they had their team with them at the office in a shared physical space. Distributing roles/tasks according to function (strategy, role, culture, career…) to several people can help you rethink remote management.
  • How will you work with your team? Shared moments are important, but you don’t need that many of them either (otherwise you’ll lose control of your schedule). Some things are ideal for pair work, in a relationship that makes the most of mentoring or coaching. Others can also be delegated to groups of individuals in more asynchronous formats. For example, the function performed by the role-buddy could be performed by a Slack or Teams channel composed of peers able to answer more technical questions related to the role. Sometimes, therefore, it is a collective that is more appropriate to answer a question or solve an individual problem. You could extend to management this African proverb about education: It takes a village (to manage a recruit).

Laetitia Vitaud

Rédactrice en chef @Recruiters

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