“Keep the vibe alive”: How Canva is managing its return to the office after COVID-19


Canva's head of vibe Chris Low. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

As Australia moves past the worst of the COVID-19 health crisis, businesses in parts of the country are starting to make a tentative return to the office.

Among them is design darling and tech unicorn Canva, which is famed for its focus on culture and it’s snazzy Sydney CBD headquarters.

Just this week, Canva announced its latest $87 million funding round, boosting its valuation to a massive $8.7 billion. But between new product launches and global expansion, the scale-up is also negotiating a move back to its uber-cool office lifestyle ⁠— at least for those employees who want to return.

Speaking to SmartCompany, Canva’s head of vibe Chris Low says the focus throughout the pandemic period has been on the team’s wellbeing. As the offices open up, that still stands.

“For some people, not having the office available was not ideal,” he notes.

The work-from-home experience is different for everyone, he adds. Those living in shared houses, or who have kids at home, may have a very different experience to those who have the luxury of a home office.

Just this week, Canva’s offices have re-opened, with safety precautions in place, Low explains.

“Quite a few people have come come up to me expressing their relief to have the office environment back,” he says.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to have their best experience, whether that’s working remotely or working in the office,” he adds.

“We were keen to try and support both, and we felt that with government restrictions lifting we were able to do that safely.”

COVID-19 has seen office workers all over the world make a mass move to remote work. While this was a trend already in motion, the pandemic has accelerated it in an unprecedented way.

“Increased flexibility will definitely be a feature of the new normal,” Low suggests.

But he considers this an opportunity to assess the impact of remote working on culture, productivity, and employees’ workplace experience.

“We’re using the next six months as an opportunity to learn. This is new ground for everyone.”

For Low, physical meetings provide important opportunities for “bursts of creativity, when people are bouncing off one another”.

That can be difficult to create in a remote workplace. But there are products (including Canva products, he notes) that can make this kind of collaboration possible in a work-from-home environment.

“We’re constantly going to learn, adapt and find new ways to create the experiences that we treasure, for the sake of the culture, and to keep the vibe alive,” Low explains.

“I definitely think there will be challenges,” he adds.

“It’s important we keep an open mind and remember the amazing things that we’ve built culturally and think about how we can continue to cultivate Canva’s culture in this hybrid model.”

The ‘why’

To an outsider at least, Canva’s famed culture is defined by its flagship Sydney office, and the bean bag corners, free lunches and rooftop terrace that are found there.

And for Low himself, the pandemic meant his job got much harder, fast. How does one ‘keep the vibe alive’ for a fully remote workplace?

“There was a moment where I had to really dig into the value behind everything we do as a team and be guided by that,” he says.

Low and the vibe team have had to tap back into the values behind those benefits. What could be considered workplace ‘perks’ are based on more ingrained principles, he explains.

“I don’t love the word perks, I think it’s distracting from why we do what we do. We eat lunch together everyday to build an important sense of belonging, and empower our community to feel a comfort and connection in the workplace,” he says.

“When things change, when you can’t do things the way you used to, it’s really important to refer back to the value behind that facility or that initiative. How can we achieve that goal, that value, in a new way?”

Early on, Canva implemented a set of initiatives helping to support employees working remotely, including online clubs, fitness classes and a continuation of the free lunch program.

And as we begin the economic recovery, Low says there are lessons to learn from the experience.

“We can reinvent the workplace experience to encapsulate a wider and more inclusive version of the workplace that allows for people to choose their experience,” he says.

For Canva, this is especially pertinent as the business grows its global footprint, building teams in different regions and different time zones.

Just this week, the unicorn announced it is opening a new office in Austin, Texas.

“It’s increasingly important that we have more and more asynchronous working patterns. That’s a kind of inclusivity that’s really important.”

“If we’re guided by why we’re doing what we do, and we’re creative and think outside the box, we’ll be better for it, and we’ll have a stronger, more inclusive workplace experience for everyone.”

Seeing how resilient Canva’s employees have been during the crisis has been “quite comforting”, Low says.

“We don’t know what’s ahead of us, but we do know that with our heads in the right place, with our values at the core of what we’re doing, we can be incredibly resilient.”

As they negotiate the return to work, Low urges other businesses to refer back to their own values, and the ‘why’ behind what they do.

“Think creatively about how you can continue to achieve that in a new way,” he advises.

There’s an opportunity at hand to re-think the way the workplace operates, and to actually emerge stronger.

“We will have a more inclusive workplace, allowing for people to have a variety of different lifestyles, while being able to contribute, and feel the strong sense of accomplishment … whether they’re in office or out of the office,” Low says.

NOW READ: The humanness revolution: Inside Canva’s iconic Sydney HQ

NOW READ: Culture in the time of coronavirus: Five things Canva is doing to maintain its vibe


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