Inside Sketch: remote working from day one
How we’ve maintained our remote culture at Sketch over more than a decade
Sketch has been remote since day one. With our co-founders living in different countries, the company couldn’t have existed any other way. And since then, our philosophy hasn’t changed. We hire people who resonate with our values and our vision, regardless of where they are.
In this way, the way we work has always been dictated by what works best for remote teams. From hosting written, asynchronous meetings where people chime in in their own time, to company-wide virtual murder mysteries, Sketch is built with its people in mind.
The key is great communication — just like in every company. But as many companies have learned in the last two years, that isn’t always easy when working remotely. So I’ve put together a few recommendations that work for us, and have evolved with us over the last decade.
Let’s take it from the top: a remote job interview
Back when I applied to Sketch — via email — it was a small team with an open Product Manager position. My first and only interview was done by chat. Even though the company has grown and we now have a dedicated People Ops team, written interviews are still an integral part of our hiring process.
With chat interviews, the idea is to strip the conversation from those common biases we are all raised with. We’re not focusing on how the person looks or how they talk. Instead, we’re getting a sense of their written communication skills — the most important skill to have at Sketch.
Now that I’ve been on both sides of the hiring process, I think chat interviews are great. They help you focus on how the candidate’s brain is wired, rather than the level of confidence they can show.
A look at Sketch’s interview process
Whenever an interview starts, we remind the candidate to:
- Press Enter as regularly as they can
- Forget about typos — we aren’t checking grammatical errors that closely today
- Ask many questions — The more questions, the better we’ll get to know each other.
The goal is to observe the candidate’s thinking process and communication skills. Sometimes, this is more important than the answers themselves.
“Chat interviews are great. They help you focus on how the candidate’s brain is wired, rather than the level of confidence they can show.”
Because good communication is so important for us, we intentionally include people from multiple departments when possible. This way, the candidate can try their hand at ‘translating’ their very technical experience so it can be understood by all audiences.
People usually start remote companies with a team that already has full trust in one another. The real challenge comes when you start expanding the team and bringing in new people. Sketch has managed to maintain that trust — it’s ingrained in its culture. In this way, it’s easier for newcomers to immediately grasp what people expect of them — and what is offered in return.
Long-distance trust is one of my favorite things about Sketch. It means we get to enjoy many benefits — such as having a flexible schedule.
Balancing flexible schedules and reliability
Traditional work environments tend to measure results and reliability by the amount of time an employee is at the office. But when you have flexible hours and nonexistent office space, the rules on how we measure a team member’s reliability totally change — especially when we factor in different time zones.
Choosing your own schedule, and letting others know about it, is what works best for us as a team. If something comes up and I need to work weird hours for the next month, I try to choose my hours carefully and stick to them. That way, everyone around me will know for sure when they can count on me.
“Choosing your own schedule, and letting others know about it, is what works best for us as a team.”
While working in a physical office, we know when our colleagues are in, when they aren’t feeling well or when they have an emergency.
At Sketch, this is the kind of information we’ve normalized sharing. We share as much as we are comfortable with. Status updates range from a simple ‘Unavailable today’ to a specific ‘Taking Cuca to the vet, I’ll be back after lunch’.
Every ping needs a meaning
While designing Sketch (the product 😄), one of our main goals has always been bothering our users as little as possible. We are firm believers in respecting people’s time, and that rings true for our internal communication as well.
In a world full of notifications, we only ping people when it’s necessary. For example, a conversation about scheduling a meeting can (and should!) be as short as one message and its reply.
👎 Don’t say:
Hey, Ale. I need to talk to you about the Canvas project. When will you be available?
👍 Do say:
Hey, Ale. Priorities have changed on our Canvas project and I think having a meeting could help us clear things up before the next sprint planning. Will you be available on Monday or Tuesday, at my 5pm, your 11am? I don’t think it will take us more than 30 minutes.
As you can see, effective internal communication saves everyone a lot of time. The first example requires more back-and-forth, whereas the second one can be scheduled right away. From the beginning, the message is setting expectations for what the conversation is about, how long it will take and who’s invited. No surprises!
Emojis are our remote face
Behind the screen, our gestures or micro-expressions don’t exist for others unless we tell them they happened. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Emojis are perfect to fill this emotionless gap.
Thanks to how much we chat in our daily lives, emojis are now a worldwide common language for human emotions. And when working remotely with people from very different cultures, most of the time without seeing their faces, using them is even more important. As I’ve written before, emojis or animated GIFs are also a quick and useful tool to acknowledge others’ interests and display your own.
Socializing at Sketch happens a lot in the form of emojis. So much so that we are proud to have a long list of custom emojis — many of them related to some member of the team. Here’s a small set of some of our custom emojis.
The heart of Sketch’s culture? Socializing
I’ve been working remotely for 15 years, and one of the first things I noticed is that you only have to talk to someone if something goes wrong. Think of feedback sessions. They can be really short or really long depending on whether you’ve delivered what’s expected or not. If something is wrong, you often have to talk to someone to get it fixed. But you don’t need to ask someone ‘how are you doing today?’ in order to do your job.
Informing people that you’re ‘Having lunch’ every single day might seem weird at first, but we’ve all lived through 2020. It’s little details like that that help keep our humanity alive when we’re not interacting face-to-face with others. I really enjoy logging into Sketch every morning, coffee in hand, and watching as our #general channel fills up with good morning messages.
In the place where we post our regular ‘hello’, ‘lunch’ and ‘goodbye’ messages, we even have internal running jokes because of the time difference. For example, when Josh 🇺🇸 says “Good morning!”, that’s Marga’s 🇳🇱 cue to disappear for lunch.
Remember to be human
When all of your communication is text-based, there is no water cooler for casual chat. So instead, we have channels dedicated to socializing. Joining these channels is totally optional, but it’s a much more organic way to get to know your colleagues and bond with them. We have everything from #videogames to #interior-design. You get to choose how many social channels you want to join and how often you want to partake in them.
Our list of channels has grown along with the team, and our current level of granularity is out of this world. There’s an #apple-events and a #pizza channel, to name a few. Then we have other well-thought-out ones like the #icebreaker-question. Here, anyone can ask a random question for everyone else to answer. Most recently, we asked colleagues to name their all-time favorite song. The result is this amazing playlist available for Spotify and Apple Music.
As you can imagine from a team spread around the world, innocent questions like ‘Which is your country’s/area most over the top dish?’ can bring us some nightmare-inducing pictures of local delicacies. I’ve gotten to know a lot about my colleagues’ interests and life stories through this channel alone.
These spaces make it possible to meet people you may not usually cross paths with, helping Sketch feel like a single team and not a group of departments. From my point of view, these organized socialization spaces are what have helped Sketch maintain its culture throughout the years.
And there you have it! The secret sauce behind a successful, fully remote company. But you don’t have to take it from me. If you have time for some coffee and contemplation, hear directly from our cofounders by checking out the video below: