Figma was founded in 2012 with a mission to connect designers virtually, enabling collaboration and communication no matter where they were in the world. Fast forward to 2020, and that original operational intent has paved the way for the company to expand significantly in the face of Covid-19’s impact on the working world. The company has expanded beyond being a collaborative tool for interface designers into a powerful platform that enables the entire product team to participate in the process. Figma continues to rapidly innovate in response to cross-industry challenges of remote team work.
In the latest episode of Greymatter, Figma CEO and co-founder Dylan Field sat down with Greylock general partner Sarah Guo to discuss how the company has evolved to meet a surge in demand, and how he is approaching leadership during this time of great upheaval. Today, the company announced it will adopt a hybrid model going forward, marking a departure from its pre-Covid office culture.
This episode is part of the #WorkFromAnywhere podcast series hosted by Sarah and Greylock partner David Thacker. You can listen to the latest episode here:
Below are highlights from Sarah’s conversation with Dylan.
FIGMA WAS FOUNDED WITH DISTRIBUTED TEAMS IN MIND, BEFORE PEOPLE WERE REALLY EMBRACING THE CONCEPT. HOW DID YOU FORECAST THAT TREND?
“We wanted to make interface design tools more collaborative and accessible to everybody. We realized that as software has become a huge part of the world economy and everything is going digital – design is just more important than ever. And because design is becoming more important, everyone wants to have a say in the design process, and everyone’s going to be part of that process. Figuring out ways to let people collaborate online becomes ever more important.”
“Something I think about a lot is the concept of a third place: it’s this idea that your first place is home, your second place is work, and the third place is somewhere fairly wholesome and pretty positive, where you can hang out with people who share your interests. These are wholesome and positive places where there are a lot of regulars. And creating a third place for people who are really interested in design is one of our challenges that we really want to figure out.”
HAVE FIGMA’S USERS EVOLVED OVER TIME?
“I recently saw a thread online from someone describing how they were using Figma. One student from Waterloo said she was using it for circuit design, and then someone else followed up saying that they were using it for a robotic systems modeling project. It was cool to see the expansion of use cases, and the things that we did not intend for someone to use it for, even as creative as building a new world or a city in a game. But we noticed these [use cases] were also very practical.”
“I think the scary part is that people have fewer boundaries between work and home. But another theory I have – and which there’s no way to necessarily validate the data – I think it’s a little bit harder to be afraid and anxious when you’re being creative. And so I think [in that way, using Figma can] also be an escape.”
HOW DID YOU APPROACH AND IMPLEMENT FIGMA’S REMOTE WORK POLICY?
“We had all these questions about how to actually navigate the change. How exactly do you shut down an office? Do you choose a hybrid model? If you go that route, what’s your plan for people working from home and your plan for people in the office?’ So in order to answer these questions, we made an employee survey just to see what people’s preferences were. It really helped us to get grounded in the data and the results were fascinating.”
“First of all, there was almost 90% employee participation, which in and of itself is impressive. So right away we knew people had strong opinions about it, and we also learned important things such as the fact that a substantial portion of our employee population – more than 70% – commuted to the office via public transit. I was shocked by that and immediately knew reopening would be very tough. More than 80% of our employees shared that despite current events, they felt productive at home. We also asked about future preferences: for instance, if we made things more flexible in general and people were allowed multiple ‘work from home’ days per week, would they consider moving out of the City to suburb? And 47% of our people on our team who live in SF said yes. Again, this is all about commuting and people wanting to hit life milestones like buying a house or starting a family or being close to their relatives.”
That allowed us to start thinking of how we would operate down the line. We asked if people were open to having their team be remote-friendly (90% said yes), if they would consider moving to a non-hub location – in other words, being remote until the end of 2022. And over two-thirds said they would consider it. All of these were very high response rates and it made us realize, ‘Ok, wow, we really need to think through our approach here.’”
AT A TIME OF RAPID SCALE AND WORKING REMOTELY, HOW DO YOU PRESERVE A SENSE OF COHESION AND COMPANY CULTURE?
“I’ve learned a lot in terms of how you make sure that your culture persists, especially as you’re scaling as fast as we are. We’ve hired so many new people this year. We’re becoming much more of a written culture. We’re learning a lot about how to codify the culture and make it sure that it’s really clear to people without the presence of an office. You have to make sure you aren’t relying purely on synchronous meetings. You can’t just be on Zoom calls all the time. It will tax everybody. I think these are all important things to learn, and it’s made us start wondering about how we are going to do this in the future. We’re really thinking about our workforce post-Covid as well as our workforce during Covid.”
“We’re really trying to just over-communicate right now. Given the uncertainty of everything else in the world, we were doing everything we could to clearly tell people, ‘Ok, here’s the state of our business. Here’s what we’re thinking. Here’s what’s changing, here’s what’s not.’ We were sending emails once or twice per week at that point, just trying to continually recap what we had said and to keep the momentum going around communication. I think that this is a time that we actually need a lot stronger leadership because people are really lacking that at the national level. So, for most people, they end up getting that at the company level instead.”
HAS YOUR WORKFLOW AND MANAGEMENT STYLE CHANGED SINCE GOING REMOTE?
“We’re making an effort on the leadership team to do more decision-making asynchronously. So for example, just having threads in Slack, where someone has a doc and then we were able to have a deadline for when you need to reply to something by. We have a conversation via that Slack thread and the document rather than having a staff meeting on the topic. We’re focusing a lot on being more focused on written communication overall, but we have a lot more headway to make there. “
“We’re trying to get to the point where there are more people who are clear decision-owners and who are driving projects. We’re figuring out what the frameworks are to make sure people are informed, and making sure it’s clear when people are expected to just move things forward. We’re also making sure that ahead of a conversation, we do some pre-work beforehand versus just getting on a call and brainstorming. It’s basic work hygiene stuff, but I think it’s so easy to accidentally ignore it because you are trying to move fast.“
HOW ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT REMOTE POLICIES MOVING FORWARD?
“Rather than trying to think about reopening and going to the office again, which is a very complex problem of its own, I like to think more about the end state. I’m thinking of a time, assuming there has been a vaccine, it’s been available for six months, and if you get Covid there is an easy fix to treat it. Hopefully that’s not over optimistic and is actually our reality relatively soon. But it’s easier for me to think through that reality and then work our way backwards to how we would reopen versus trying to think it through linearly.”
“We’re making it so pretty much all of our existing roles are open for remote employees (only in the United State for now). Over time we’ll open up different locations in different countries. It is a payroll and legal accounting challenge to open up new locations. It’s not trivial. But we look forward to opening new roles in new countries, and we think we’ll see a lot of attraction there.”
“People really value the in-person collaboration. So it’s a very hard problem. Where we landed on was more of a hybrid model, where employees have to designate as remote or non-remote. I think this is really important because people don’t need to think about where they will find people. And if people are non-remote but have flexible work from home, we will encourage teams who are coming into the office to come in on the same day. You also have to remember everything will be a process because of HR reasons. We’ll allow people to go anywhere in the United States, except for Hawaii right away because of some random benefits reasons. And then even as we expand the area where people can work from, and open additional locations, people will be required to have sufficient overlap in terms of working hours with their teams.”
“As more people go through those company experiences at places that have gone remote, more people in the workforce will expect the ability to remote. And so I think it’s really hard to only think about remote as a 2020 thing and not support remote in 2021, 2022.”