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We’re Retiring The ‘Buffer Bootcamp’ Period For New Teammates – Here’s Why

Sep 28, 2017 8 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter

Former Director of People @ Buffer

The “Buffer Bootcamp” is a rite of passage that’s long been a staple of our culture at Buffer.

This is the 45-day period that all new teammates at Buffer have embarked upon as they joined the team.

Traditionally, the “bootcamper” has acted as a freelancer/contractor for their first 6 weeks, working on a probationary basis – no healthcare benefits, equity, or team retreats just yet. They generally receive lots of hands-on coaching and feedback as they learn the ropes of Buffer.

It’s been a time for both sides to mutually audition one another and decide whether it feels like a great fit. We feel so strongly about this that we offer a full pay-out for the entire 45 days in the event things don’t work out. (So if someone is two weeks in and not enjoying it, they can get an extra month of pay and move on.)

So after 4+ years of tradition, why change bootcamp now?

From ‘audition’ to support

We started the bootcamp concept at Buffer because we wanted to be honest with ourselves and new teammates about a simple fact of life: Not all new relationships work out. Here’s the language that we used up until recently in emails to new teammates:

We find it helpful to make sure that, after the interviews are over and you’re getting your hands dirty, it still feels like a great fit. (We fully expect that it will.) At the end of the 45 days, if either you or Buffer doesn’t feel sure, then we’ll part ways with no hard feelings. We feel it is super important that all new hires are aligned and feel comfortable.

Historically, about 30 percent of bootcampers haven’t gone on to become teammates at Buffer. This isn’t always easy, but we’ve learned that it’s a necessary and healthy part of building a great team and company.

And if we’re being really honest? There will probably always be some situations where it makes sense to part ways – even far beyond the first 45 days.

We’re inevitably going to fire people at times, and have teammates “fire” us when they decide on a different path.

So why add extra stress to the already intense process of getting to know a new job and new team by creating a prolonged “audition” process?

We know now that that’s probably not the best environment for folks to do their best work.

“The most challenging part for me is the pressure I put on myself in the beginning of bootcamp,” our Customer Advocate Mick wrote in an AMA during his first 45 days. “I could see that the rest of the (Customer Advocacy) team were answering a huge number of emails each day. I felt that I needed to get off to a flying start and it resulted in a lot of long, 12+ hours days.”

After hearing from teammates on this, it feels most productive and empathetic to turn this 45-day period from an endless audition into a supportive on-ramping. Here are 5 reasons we’re making this change and a bit about what the first 6 weeks at Buffer will look like going forward.

5 reasons we’re retiring the bootcamp concept

1. We want teammates to feel secure right away

When is the last time you felt insecure at work? Did you act differently as a result? Chances are, you spoke up less, blended in more, took fewer risks.

Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as: “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

A psychologically safe climate makes it easier for people to share ideas, listen to diverse views, engage in healthy debate, and speak up with their tentative thoughts.

It’s so important that in a study by Google’s Project Aristotle, the safer team members felt with each other, the better they did in almost every area of work. Google has deemed it the key building block of a successful team.

Source: re:Work

Although we ask folks to bring their authentic selves to work at Buffer, our bootcamp process didn’t exactly set the stage for psychological safety.

A 45-day probationary period is a big risk, especially for those who left other jobs to join Buffer. If teammates felt insecure and “on guard” for their first 6 weeks, we likely missed out on their candid thoughts and big, risky ideas.

2. We want more real conversations and less ‘artificial harmony’

When you don’t feel entirely safe to be yourself at work, you’re not very likely to go out on a limb and share your unfiltered thoughts.

Couple this potential post-bootcamp pitfall with our values of positivity and gratitude, and it’s no wonder that as a team we’ve struggled with voicing struggles or critiques, lest they be seen as negative or damage the gratitude that our teammates felt for their hard work.

In Patrick M. Lencioni’s The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, “artificial harmony” refers to a team that doesn’t have very much healthy conflict, which he defines as “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team.”

Source: Abinoda

This lack of conflict generally isn’t a sign of a fully-aligned group. On the contrary, it usually means that essential conflict isn’t happening.

Eliminating artificial harmony is something we’ve been working on a lot at Buffer, and I think reframing our “bootcamp” period will make a big difference.

The first few weeks at a new job are the moments when you’re seeing things with the freshest perspective, and we hope to enable new teammates to share candidly what they’re feeling and experiencing to help us evolve both our products and our culture.

3. We want to embrace ‘values fit’ over “culture fit’

One of the main reasons the bootcamp concept no longer makes as much sense for Buffer is that it was designed to ensure “a perfect fit” between the new teammate and Buffer’s culture.

Now we know there’s no such thing.

Buffer’s values are incredible and life-changing, but they’re also aspirational. None of us are “perfect” fits with them – we fail, we say the wrong thing, we let our ego get in the way. We’re human.

And we’re also humbled to remember the many changes we’ve made to our values over time – and all the changes yet to come.

Culture is meant to evolve, and every new teammate we add has the potential to broaden and enhance our culture – if we allow them to.

Instead of looking for the perfect culture fit, we’ve started instead to focus on values fit and cultural contribution. In other words, not how they can conform to our culture, but how we can expand our culture by learning from them.

4. We want a more diverse team

Let’s be real for a second – especially in the U.S., not everyone can go from a secure role with medical insurance into a contractor gig, even for a short while. Even a few days without insurance can be a deal-breaker.

In the past, we’ve believed that a willingness to take the risk to apply at Buffer knowing about our bootcamp could be a valuable signal of a teammate’s culture fit. But this is a privileged position that ignores the reality of many people’s situations.

Our bootcamp process potentially disadvantaged many people, including folks with families and anyone with a disability or preexisting medical condition.

Creating a more diverse team is very important to us for many reasons: To better represent our customer base, to build a stronger team with better ideas, and to make sure the future of work we’re building is accessible to all types of people.

Source: McKinsey

We hope that making this change, and publicizing it widely, can help more types of people to visualize themselves at Buffer and feel more confident to apply to join our team.

Psychological safety (way back from Point 1) also paves the way for authentic self-expression, meaning that our diverse team can be who they really are at work instead of who they think the organization wants them to be. From Reinventing Employee Onboarding:

When newcomers are “processed” to accept an organization’s identity, they are expected to downplay their own identities, at least while they are at work.
But subordinating one’s identity and unique perspectives may not be optimal in the long run for either the organization or the individual employee because suppressing one’s identity is upsetting and psychologically depleting.

This gives us a bit a blueprint for the ideal onboarding experience: Share our own values without “processing” them onto newcomers. Allow new teammates to bring their own identities and perspectives to work, and allow that to evolve our culture. Exciting!

5. It was never really a fitting name ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s always been a bit awkward to describe the Buffer bootcamp. We typically needed to add in a caveat like “It’s far from a bootcamp in the traditional sense—there are no pushups, buzz cuts, or army fatigues here, promise.”

We have tons of respect for military service, but Buffer is about as far from a military environment as possible. While the name “bootcamp” conjured up time trials and feats of strength, we’re really more about smiley face emojis, learning and development, and speaking gently with one another.

This change should help us live up to another of our values, “Communicate with clarity.”

What the first 45 days at Buffer looks like now

Moving forward, we’ll no longer use the terminology of “bootcamp,” but the first 6 weeks a new teammate spends at Buffer will still remain incredibly crucial.

  • We’ll still provide the same amount of coaching, feedback, and open communication
  • We’ll still set up new teammates with buddies to help them learn the most about Buffer’s culture and values.
  • We’ll still offer a full pay-out for the entire 45 days in the event a teammate doesn’t choose to continue with us.

But from now on, a new teammate will be a full teammate from Day 1. They’ll immediately be eligible for healthcare benefits (In the U.S. there’s still a waiting period, but now it begins on Day 1 instead of Day 46), they’ll join us on retreats if the trip happens during their first few weeks, and they won’t have a “graduation” period at the end of the 45 days.

There’s still a chance things won’t work out, whether it’s at 2 weeks in or 6 months down the road. When this happens, we’ll continue to show as much gratitude and respect as possible to the departing teammate and set them up with a generous departure package.

We hope this will create a different environment for new teammates in their first few weeks – one that feels like an encouraging welcome instead of a 45-day period of auditioning.

Over to you!

This is a big change in Buffer’s terminology and philosophy, and I’d love to hear how it feels to you. Share any thoughts or feedback in the comments; let’s discuss!

P.S. A giant thank you to incredible Buffer engineer Emily Plummer for being the catalyst for this change!

Cover photo by Jez Timms

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