What we’ve learned from 7 years of running a worldwide remote design team

Culture Shapes Image

Moving your entire company from working in an office to working remotely around the world could be a foolhardy endeavour. Or it could be just the bold move to help you grow and thrive. At SketchDeck we made that exact transition: we’ll tell you how it went, and what we learned.

Back in the halcyon startup days of 2014 we were building our first office in Mountain View, California. SketchDeck founders Chris Finneral and David Mack were frantically trying to design all the presentations being sent to the company, and in-between PowerPoint marathons trying to hire additional staff.

Unsurprisingly, the best talent didn’t all live within 20 miles of our laptops. We started looking more broadly for our first crew of visual virtuosos.

“Very early on, there was a realization that the designers we wanted to work with didn’t necessarily live in Mountain View, California,” says Finneral.

Depending on who you ask, building a remote company is a pretty radical decision. However, it’s become more common since SketchDeck decided to take the risk of building a remote team in 2013.

On the road to building our global team of design ninjas, we’ve learned that the remote model is a lot less risky or foolish than many people believe. It’s also surprisingly beneficial for everyone. Clients get to work with the best design specialists for their project, no matter where in the world they’re located. Employees don’t spend 40 minutes or more a day commuting, and more importantly, they’re free to live the good life on their own terms, whether that means living on a goat farm or in the hippest city neighborhood.

Here’s what we’ve learned about building a successful remote work culture in our 7-year journey of building SketchDeck.

Foster connection across geographies

You start to share things when you’re in the same space with a set of people for 40 hours a week. Like it or not, you’re going to overhear conversations, share the same colds, and get to hang out after work. Sharing traditional office space 40 hours a week can also be a good thing, especially since it leads to a shared sense of purpose.

Losing this camaraderie was a big fear for the team, especially those who joined specifically because they enjoyed the office community.

We’ve found it’s not impossible to bring people together when they work from home. It just requires effort, and it’s much easier if you bring people together at least a few times each year.

“We do retreats and meetups throughout the year to bring people together physically, which does a lot for employee engagement and culture,” says Finneral.

Staff retreats aren’t a heads-down hack session. “We accept that we’re not going to get much of our day-to-day work done in our retreats, says Finneral. “We instead focus on strategy, new ideas and culture. Most of all, there’s a ton of emphasis on having fun with colleagues.”

Fun isn’t only confined to face-to-face interactions either. We’ve made a lot of effort to digitally-foster the same kinds of joyful, lighthearted interactions that can happen automatically in an office. It’s important to create time and space for personal connections in the months between staff retreats. Here are a few tools that have worked for us:

  • Donut Dates: Monthly fun, virtual hangout session between two randomly-paired coworkers.
  • Slack Chatter: Off-topic chat channels for discussing movies, fun hobbies, or trashy television shows like “The Bachelor.”
  • Children, pets and family are very welcome to internal video meetings.
  • Weekly Check-Outs: Weekly sessions focus on a theme, a shared question, and fun games like Jeopardy.
  • Holiday activities like theming our profile pictures with festive regalia, or jointly designing a virtual quilt.

You’re probably worried about productivity risks

People often associate remote work with no work. Like, isn’t working from home a cover story for going to the gym and snuggling your favourite doggie? Well, that’s not really the case.

“One of the worries I had was whether people actually work if you’re not in the same room as them. Will people just watch Netflix all day?” says Finneral. “As it turns out, that just doesn’t happen.” “It’s funny, the remote work pains that I worried about at first aren’t really an issue”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges, here’s some of the things we’ve had to work through:

Challenge #1: Creating camaraderie

Some people honestly enjoy the way a physical office environment creates feelings of connection. Remote work has the potential for loneliness and isolation, especially if you don’t go the extra mile to create a reality television channel on Slack or dance the conga for new hires.

Challenge #2: Individual adjustments

Many of SketchDeck’s designers are new to remote work. There’s an adjustment period following any change, and people have to figure out how the new remote lifestyle will affect their personal workflow. Open dialogue is vital to onboarding, especially when people aren’t face-to-face with their new team.

Challenge #3: Junior talent

Less experienced talent have to navigate their new role and soft skills in any environment. When Juniors join a remote team, extra effort and attention needs to be provided to help them settle into what looks like freedom to get work product produced at any time, but in reality is a very constrained timeline. SketchDeck solves this problem by using mentors to guide and help junior hires, ensuring they get the help they need to adjust, learn and grow.

Challenge #4: Time zones

Global team members aren’t always online at the same time. It’s easy to end up with people in opposing time zones and we find this can be detrimental to productivity. When colleagues are not online when you are, you cannot ask them where things are or sync on the tasks for the day. To combat this, we hire teams within close time-zones to each other.

Feedback is key to navigating the remote-waters

The remote work model has been a surprisingly smooth experience at SketchDeck. However, we’ve also dodged a few challenges by proactively keeping our eyes and ears open and applying solutions in real-time. The key is to keep listening and maintain an open dialogue with contributors.

“Some people experienced loneliness when the office began to thin out. It can be really hard, for social people, to no longer have an immediate support network in their physical environment. We talked a lot about this, checking in with each-other regularly about how things progressed and how we felt” says Mack.

“We’ve just tried to keep a really good, open dialogue with everyone. If we spot problems, we figure out how to put solutions in place,” says Finneral.

No one ever has all of the right tools or solutions from day one. “There have been bumps along the way, but nothing totally devastating has come up,” says Finneral. Listening to feedback, applying changes, and listening some more has been a valuable management technique at SketchDeck—and it’s a principle that everyone can benefit from.

Make it easy to collaborate

Some of our favorite third-party collaboration tools include Zoom for meetings and Slack for real-time collaboration. The heart of our collaboration takes place within the SketchDeck platform, however. “It’s a project management and agency management platform we’ve built ourselves over the past six years, which brings everything together,” says David Mack. “It’s what all our clients use to give feedback on designs. It’s also what our designers use to collaborate on the same project.”

Each design project can involve a lot of different skills. Generally, at a minimum, there’s a project manager, at least one designer, and a quality-checker. Sometimes, there’s a lot of design specialists working toward the same goal on a bigger project. One design project can involve a whole load of specialists, like a creative strategist, a video expert, and a presentation designer.

Project management can potentially be a headache for global remote teams. It’s not like there’s an option of walking over to someone’s desk to sort an issue. On every project, there are endless small details like files, briefings, and deadlines that could get overlooked and spell disaster.

We ended up building our own platform to alleviate this. The SketchDeck platform makes our whole team keep every project impeccably organized, putting things in the same place every time (now counting well over ten thousand projects).

“Our work can continue around the clock, which is really important for urgent timelines or big projects,” says Mack.

To be clear, not every remote, global team needs a proprietary technology platform for collaboration. That’s not the point, the point is to enable collaboration. Technology is the only way to connect people across time and space. It’s important to streamline shared work efforts, and you can do that with a homegrown platform or a wonderful franken-system of third-party cloud tools.

Hire based on values

Drawing from a global talent pool means you can fast-track candidates with the best skill set to do the job, whatever that means for your company. For us, we look for candidates with specialized knowledge and excellent portfolios. SketchDeck’s team includes people who are incredibly good at presentation design, videographers, typesetting specialists, quality control experts, creative strategists, and others.

The best team members don’t always come to SketchDeck from a remote working background, but they often find they like it. Many people find they’re more productive in a remote model, and who wouldn’t get more done with fewer office distractions and more purposeful meetings?

“Remote work means that you have the opportunity to like build your own work environment to fit you. That could be in your house, it could be in your garage, or it could be in a co-working space,” says Mack.

Everyone has a slightly different definition for a productive workspace, and remote workers get to choose whether they want to work in total silence or crank out great designs to a soundtrack of hair metal. As it turns out, doing the typical thing isn’t always the best thing. Startups, creative agencies, and high-tech companies love open-floor plan workspaces, and this distracting environment isn’t a productive, happy place for most people.

Remember, skills alone aren’t enough for a successful hiring strategy. First, you need to find the right person for the job, and next, you need to make sure a candidate can thrive on your team. “We look at people who are good communicators and proactive,” says Finneral. “We’ve always tried to check people against our core set of values when hiring for cultural fit.”

“It’s about building a company of people that are really productive when they work together and building a really happy, inspiring place to work in,” says Finneral.

In the most general terms possible, people need to be able to manage themselves to succeed with less structure. “I’m often looking for people who can be handed something and run with it,” says Mack. “A core skill set for self-management is completely necessary for a remote working environment.”

Remote working can be a game-changer

Are you riding the talent shortage struggle bus? It’s increasingly common, especially in competitive talent markets like San Francisco. David Mack and Chris Finneral once feared the challenges of a remote work model, even though it’s been a surprisingly successful 6-year experiment. Employees sometimes get hired with some real reservations about whether they’ll like remote work. In the end, many find the freedom enables them to make big positive life changes.

“It’s pretty common for people to mention remote work in company gratitude circles, and how they’re able to live the type of life they want to lead and pursue their passions,” says Mack.

Running a remote global design team hasn’t been without its share of challenges, but some of those challenges can occur in any type of work environment. Having really frank one-to-one conversations between manager and team member and applying solutions quickly has been effective.

It’s possible to build a positive environment across time zones and continents. It’s worked so effectively, that we’ve seen a boomerang effect of employees who leave and then return to work for SketchDeck. “They get curious about seeing other jobs,” says Mack. “They see them, and [realize] ‘Oh no, I miss SketchDeck. I’m going back.’ We’re really lucky to experience this effect.” Mack chalks it up to the close loving ties that have grown between the team and the honesty and respect they offer each-other.

Jasmine Henry

Jasmine Henry

Redefine what's possible with SketchDeck.

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Redefine what’s possible
with SketchDeck.