Remote Leaders: Marcus Wermuth of Buffer on overcommunication and isolation[wtr-time]
How Marcus Wermuth approaches communication and dealing with the different types of isolation that come with remote work.
If there’s anyone who knows about remote work, it’s Marcus Wermuth. Marcus is an Engineering Manager at Buffer, a completely distributed company. However, Marcus’ journey working remotely started long before joining the team at Buffer. We caught up with him to discuss communication, the different types of isolation remote workers can experience and more on his approach to remote management.
Fast facts about Marcus
- Nearly a decade of experience working remotely
- He’s literally writing the book on being a remote manager
- Managing a team of 5 (and hiring!)
Before we dive in, can you tell us a bit more about your role?
I’m an Engineering Manager, leading the mobile team at Buffer. We offer multiple products, and our team helps build mobile versions while also working on developing new apps.
Is Buffer your first remote working experience?
No, I’ve actually been remote all of my career aside from an internship experience after college. I started working as a freelancer in 2011, living in Germany at the time and working from home. I spent 5 years freelancing and the last 4 to 5 years at Buffer.
How many direct reports do you have?
I’m actually hiring for an engineer right now, but normally I have 4 engineers and 1 designer. So, 5 people plus myself are on the team.
What’s in your tech stack?
Slack is our virtual office, but we use Threads more for async communication. We don’t use email at Buffer internally, so threads replace that for us. It’s where we have discussions, weekly updates, etc. We use JIRA for PM work like tickets and Notion more for evergreen content stuff like vacation policies, on-call engineering handbook… things that don’t change. We also use Dropbox paper for note-taking, meeting notes, design briefs, feature work, and documenting technical implementation. Zoom of course for video calls and we’ve been trialing Mural.co for virtual white-boarding.
Buffer has always been transparent with email. It used to be that whenever you sent an internal email you would CC a huge group or the company on it which meant that your inbox was already 100 or 200 deep on day 1. We learned that email is not great for asynchronous communication. So we started using threads instead for internal communication. Of course, communicating with the outside world we still use email, but internally threads are much better (also carrot). It gives you a place to have discussions and analytics to see who has seen the thread and who hasn’t seen it. That context is so important to have in remote work. It’s so much more advanced than email.
What’s your biggest challenge working remotely?
Isolation. Everyone is mentioning it, and it’s a pretty general thing but there are different forms of isolation. Time zones are a challenge because of informational isolation. If 80% of decisions are being made in the west part of the world, APAC is like, “what?” Another big challenge with remote work is building relationships as a manager. You have to put in more work and effort into building and maintaining those. It’s a challenge, but it’s something you’re aware of and overcome.
What’s the biggest advantage of working remotely?
The first one is flexibility and not necessarily in how my day looks, but the flexibility it provides by way of your relationships and life. By working remotely I can move wherever I want to, go back and forth between two places and there’s that general flexibility of movement that you don’t get in an in-office job.
Where do you actually work?
I went through stages of working from the bedroom, kitchen, living room, etc. but when I moved I was specifically looking for an additional room for a home office.
What are the must-haves for a home office?
The must-haves for a remote office I think are a very good chair. You sit on it for 30 years or so, so get a very high-quality chair. Get a standing desk. Have good lighting (I’m currently working on this). Have your Mac or PC, an external monitor, a good webcam and good headphones.
How do you start your workday?
Normally, I wake up at 7, brush my teeth, make myself ready, walk for 20 minutes with my dog, listen to music or an audiobook, come back, make my coffee, have breakfast. While I’m having breakfast, I either read or catch up on Twitter, LinkedIn, work, etc. I try not to email. That happens when there’s a lot on my list. For me, with the timezones I work in, I overlap as much as I can in the morning that way I’m not working too late into the evening.
Would you ever go back to working on-site?
I don’t know… No. I don’t think there’s anything that could convince me to go back to the office. I had the experience for 6 months and even just going to the city in the morning is 15 minutes every day back and forth that’s no longer mine.
What’s one piece of advice can you give to someone who is about to go fully remote?
Learn more about communication, and be self-aware of how you communicate. If you’re working in a fully remote company, it’s likely that you’re working with a variety of different cultures and non-native English speakers. There are many facets of communication to learn about like, non-violent communication, giving feedback, asynchronous communication. There’s also no such thing as overcommunication in remote work. The more you say it, the more it becomes hard and documented. For example, if you say something 7 times in an office maybe ⅓ of people have heard it. That just gets multiplied with remote work.
Question the status quo and experiment when it comes to communication. Never accept something that is “Set in stone” or “This is just how we do it.”
Do you feel like being remote hinders your career growth in any way?
I myself have never felt limited. I could see how you might feel at a disadvantage though if it’s a hybrid situation. I can see the point. But my advice always to my direct reports is to document and always be sharing your successes. Over Communicate. Share in one-on-ones your wins. Show off. I can’t be everywhere, and as a manager I depend on you telling me those things. Transparently share everything with your manager, share your work everywhere, and share it where it will be seen.
On the topic of loneliness, do you ever feel lonely or isolated working remotely? If so, how do you combat it?
I just recently started listening to a podcast about connection and disconnection. Not just physical disconnection but informational and time-zone isolation. One thing I noticed lately is I was starting to feel a bit down about the amount of time I was spending in my home. I started thinking, “I’m a bit isolated here” and I’m also the only employee working in Germany. So, I recently started every Friday going to a coffee shop in the morning and working from there till lunch. Being in a different setting, there’s a different energy. And Buffer helps with that, we have a stipend for coffee shops each month.
What was your reason for working remotely in the first place?
When I was freelancing, I started to work with a startup. There weren’t very many people and the founders were a bit awkward. They wanted me to work in Milan, every second week for 3 days. Doing that for a while made me realize, I don’t want this set up. I knew about Buffer and what they were doing, and that was the decision I made, that I wanted to work for someone who is embracing remote work.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
One thing I’m a little bit obsessed with is the leadership management stuff in remote work. When we do work virtually, we do work with a lot of avatars. I try to encourage people to understand there are humans behind avatars. Being aware of that and embracing the human element of remote work is hugely important to me.
Learn more from remote leaders like Marcus:
- Remote Leaders: Why GitLab’s Head of Remote “unchained from a life of commuting”
- Remote Leaders: Dana Doswell of Sidepart on why habit building is the key to remote work