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The emergence of Covid-19 in March 2020 changed the workforce seemingly overnight. Companies with policies stating employees need to be in the office five days a week were scrambling to develop a plan where business could carry on while their employees worked from home.

But not every business had to face this hurdle. One business that didn’t think anything of this change was Sketch, a fully featured collaborative platform for designers. For CEO Pieter Omvlee, working remotely has been the normal routine since they were founded in 2010.

Omvlee is here to share his perspective on remote work, what he’s learned along the way, and how to apply a remote-first methodology to your business — before you lose your top talent.

How Sketch went remote

In 2010, Peiter Omvlee was living in London, and his partner and co-founder, Emanuel Sá, lived in Portugal. From day one, their goal wasn’t necessarily to start a big business, they simply had the goal to build an app.

And build an app they did, by communicating mostly via iChat. Omvlee explains, “As we released the product and it became clear that it was a bigger success than we had initially planned for, we started looking for people to join us. We found that it worked out great for us being remote. We work well together, but being remote also meant finding talent in places where companies traditionally weren’t looking. And that’s been a great thing for us.”

Being remote from the get-go allowed Omvlee and Sá to expand their hiring scope, allowing them to hire the best of the best, no matter where they were located.

How working remote can build culture

Some organizations worry that working remotely will mean company culture will suffer, but Omvlee believes that isn’t the case. Being fully remote can help to build a culture that is centered around trust. 

According to Omvlee, not having all of your employees gathered and working in one large office means you have to trust one another to get the job done. “I believe that trust is the key element upon which working remotely is built. You need to trust people to employ the right initiatives because you can’t be there all the time, holding their hands,” he explains. 

Another way working remotely has helped Sketch build a strong workplace culture is they take the time to write down all information, processes, and procedures. He elaborates to say, “We do have calls from time to time, but we put everything in writing so the people in different time zones or who have other appointments that conflict can always read back on things. You don’t need to be in a certain meeting to know what is going on, and I think that really helps keep communication strong.”

How Sketch makes onboarding work

A challenge that many companies faced as they transitioned to working fully remote was how to onboard new employees. While the foundation of Sketch is built on trust, it can be difficult for organizations to trust a brand new team member on day one. 

For Omvlee and his team, they’ve found that specific tactics work for them to ensure onboarding is as seamless as possible. For starters, Sketch keeps a repository that is constantly being updated with the projects they’re working on and specific guidelines so that every detail can be looked up when there’s a question or if a detail needs to be double-checked. Also, when a new hire is joining the team, the information surrounding their onboarding is prepared ahead of time, so nothing’s left to the last minute. 

And even if it’s challenging at times, the team at Sketch knows that trust is a necessary building block to make this work. “Trust is something that people respond well to if you give it to them. If in the first days you are too much on top of things, it can backfire on you,” Omvlee explains. 

Another strategy Sketch uses during onboarding is that every new hire is assigned a seasoned employee to help them through specific procedures and get them familiar and acclimated with the culture.

Challenges Sketch has overcome

In addition to onboarding, there are some remote-first challenges organizations may be faced with.

Sketch has found that management needs to remember to lead by example and have exceptional communication as companies oversee a remote team. A company’s efforts to have excellent communication can help keep a robust written record of as much information as you can that is constantly being updated and checked for accuracy.

“When you communicate something in person, it’s easy to add gestures and emphasis and clarify or soften things up with body language. And, it can be tempting not to say details as clearly as you want to because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. There’s so much room for misunderstanding in the written word, which is why clarity of communication is really important,” explains Omvlee. 

Another challenge of working remotely Sketch has overcome is feeling like coworkers don’t have a bond or relationship. A strategy that has worked for them is to incorporate talking about hobbies, shared interests, and life outside of work over Slack to form bonds while building a gateway to trust. They also organize casual sessions where the team can learn skills that aren’t centered around work.

“We had a summer photography contest, a cooking session, and a storytelling share, which were not related to work at all. It was simply a nice way for people to socialize and get to know each other.”

Before the pandemic, Sketch also orchestrated a yearly meet-up where the team could participate in social activities, team-building exercises, and get dinner as a group, all to help reinforce culture, values, and foster relationships.

Giving the team a strong work-life balance

One challenge specifically was the issue of having a healthy work-life balance, which became especially difficult during the height of Covid. It became difficult to balance personal and professional lives because they were all suddenly the same. 

Sketch tackled this by giving their team enough time to recharge and avoid burnout. “It’s important to make sure employees don’t over- or under-commit to work. You always find out when someone isn’t really working. One benefit Sketch offers is unlimited holiday paid time off so employees can make time for themselves and recharge. We also offer flexible work hours.”

Measuring the health of remote work

On top of implementing a work-life balance centered around allowing the team to rest and recharge, Sketch takes it one step further to measure the health of the remote-first workplace.

In addition to managers checking in with their team to ensure they’re taking enough time off, Sketch also sends out surveys asking employees how they’re feeling, if they’re happy in their role, and whether they need something else to succeed. Answers to these surveys remain anonymous. 

Sketch also provides employees with a mental health program, where anyone within the company can seek the help they need.

Advice from Sketch on transitioning to remote or hybrid offices

For those unsure if they should remain remote or transition to a hybrid office, Sketch recommends being 100% remote, because it’s all about staying consistent.

Omvlee shared a helpful example to explain why he feels like this. “If you have a team in the office and a team not in the office, I fear that it would lead to sort of two groups of people, where if you’re in the office, you do get more information than if you’re working from home. We experienced this in a very, very small way here at Sketch when I rented a small office in a coworking space together with someone else who happened to live in the same city. And even just us two, you could notice that we were discussing things that we then forgot to relay back to the rest of the team. And I can only imagine it gets worse if you have a large group of people in the office and a large group of people out. 

“I think the consistency of just having everybody remote really helps. Everybody has to work in the same way.”

What the future of remote looks like

How the future of remote work looks will depend on details like geography, industry, leadership, the company’s size, and more. No matter how your company makes a remote-first workplace a success for them, it’s important when it comes to retention. 

“In our situation, we’ve been able to hire amazing people, and people have come to Sketch specifically because they like remote work. They have the right experience, and they don’t want to go back to working in an office. And I think we’ve all read stories from small to large companies, where they want the people back in the office, but the employees simply didn’t want to.

I think talent retention is the biggest problem for many companies out there, and just adding the unnecessary limit of location into the mix really doesn’t help. I think working remotely is here to stay, and I think it’ll be a shame for a company not to invest in flexibility,” shares Omvlee.

At the end of the day, no matter the organization, if you want to remain competitive, attract top talent, and keep your best employees around for the long haul, a remote workforce is the way to go.

“We’ve hired many people who are married, have children, their entire life is where they are. Why on earth would they move to the other side of the world just to work at your company?”

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