We’re seven months into 2020, and I think we’re all still grieving the lives we had before COVID-19 hit the world. Grief is not linear and we all move through it in different ways. Some of us have processed the situation we are in and are ready for what’s next. Others are adapting to this new world. And some of us are still in denial, comforted by the hope that our pre-COVID lives could return at any moment.
As time passes by, it’s clear work and life are changing in significant ways. COVID-19 has weakened the network effects of cities across the world. More and more people are winding down their overpriced leases and moving elsewhere to save money or be near loved ones.
These trends, along with Figmate feedback, motivated us to make some big changes. Once offices are safe to open again, we’re moving towards a hybrid model, where we offer both in-person and remote work options. This is a departure from the mostly in-person approach we had before COVID.
We took an employee-centric approach to this decision, using an internal survey to inform our plan. Many companies are grappling with similar choices, so in the hopes of helping others think through it, we’re sharing our approach and results.
Given recent trends, we had a feeling Figma’s original remote policy wasn’t going to work for a post-COVID world, but our leadership team was divided on how it should evolve. Even discussing these issues was difficult given we hadn’t aligned on the same language. It was hard not to conflate plans for reopening the office with our future workplace strategy. And since reopening the office is a huge can of worms in itself, we decided to separate these decisions and work backwards from our long term policy.
In times of uncertainty, values are good tools for decision making, and we leaned heavily on them for this process. During one of our first conversations, we debated if we needed to decide now versus later. Why not pause to see what our peers would do, then follow their lead? Ultimately we decided that we shouldn’t wait to work through this—lack of clarity was a source of employee anxiety and we needed to pick a direction so we could start optimizing our culture. Furthermore, one of our company values is “Be Bold” which refers to our history of working on meaningful projects, even when they are hard. It’s decidedly not bold to just wait and see what everyone else does!
We quickly realized we needed to understand Figmate preferences in order to create a policy that would work for our team. After failing to find a survey template that fit our specific needs, I partnered with Figma’s Head of People to create a new one. The survey was then vetted with our amazing research team who gave great feedback.
To get as complete a picture as possible of our staff’s preferences, we gathered personal stories and hard numbers, via both write-in and multiple choice questions. We asked about everything from commute habits to productivity levels during COVID to remote work preferences.
Interested in adapting the survey we created for Figma? You can see the questions here. We encourage you to use this as a way to hear people as individuals. Dig into your employees’ understanding of the survey’s language. Push for a majority response rate. Gather different kinds of information. Do the work. It’s hard and time-consuming…but worth it!
The survey was lengthy and only open for one week, but more than 90% of our team filled it out (with no reminders). It was immediately clear that this is a topic everyone at Figma feels strongly about.
After the submission deadline closed, I spent the weekend parsing through data. It was a learning experience for me to understand where various employees were coming from in their answers and I was surprised with many of the results. I’d expected at least some level of convergence on certain topics, but almost no one had the same opinion on these issues. It was clear that I’d need to make an informed decision on the workplace policy and then own it as CEO.
For example, in one multiple choice question we asked people how they defined “flexible schedule,” in terms of which days in a given week should be available for WFH. (This was a follow up to whether they preferred a flexible work schedule, working entirely from the office or entirely from home.) Seemingly everyone had a different take on what flexible meant for them.
Digging into location preferences, almost half of employees currently based in San Francisco said they would consider moving to another city within commute distance if we offered multiple WFH days per week. Nearly two thirds of employees said they would consider moving to a non-hub location before the end of 2022 if all roles had the option to be remote. When asked why they were interested in moving or working remotely, Figmates cited cost of living, desire for home ownership, and wanting to be closer to family.
At the same time, many employees told us in free text replies how much they loved the office; it was clear people missed the sense of connection and serendipity it enabled. They self-ranked their productivity scores as high, despite everything happening in the world right now. But many said they weren’t making connections to employees outside their core team, and there was a lot of FOMO about not knowing new hires. (The Figma team is rapidly scaling.)
The data showed our employees valued flexibility but still had an attachment to our office. So we decided to talk with a number of hybrid companies, which led to some really valuable insights:
1. Where to find someone: It’s important for employees to have a predictable mental model for where they can find the people they work with.
2. Timing for office days: Implementing a fully flexible WFH schedule can lead to a “ghost town” office. If no one comes in at the same time, then you lose the moments of connection and serendipity that make in-person offices beneficial.
3. The hybrid model is hard: All the companies we talked with were committed to the hybrid workplace model, but they all were open about its challenges, especially with remote inclusion.
Given this feedback and survey results, we landed on the following policy:
In many ways, we followed our normal design process in revising this policy. We thought about the competitive landscape and ecosystem, collected data, explored different options and then converged on a solution. However, unlike making a product change, this was weirdly emotional for me—small changes in policy sometimes felt like we were leaping between potential worlds. I didn’t feel like I had a framework for the decision until the end of our process and at times it was as if there was nothing to hold onto.
As I prepped an All Hands presentation called “The future is remote” for the Figma team, I tried to keep in mind that employees were at different stages of processing all the changes brought by COVID. I did my best to be transparent about how we made the decision to move to this new model, and I walked Figmates through the trends, survey results and policy decisions we considered. Finally we talked about Figma’s role in building products for distributed and remote teams.
We still had certain details to nail down, and we knew we’d be inundated with questions. But we wanted to share as early as possible rather than keep employees in the dark.
Since the presentation, our team has been working on the necessary processes and policies that underlie the hybrid workforce model. As you might imagine, it adds a bunch of complexity throughout our systems. A few examples:
Looking ahead, we’re thinking a lot about how Figma’s culture needs to change so we can adapt to this hybrid world. Right now our communication is very synchronous and verbal. Over time, I’m eager to move the team towards more async and artifact-based communication in order to reduce the number of meetings (Zoom fatigue is real!) and make decision making more transparent. These are important changes that will allow us to be more inclusive of remote workers once office hubs open up.
While this decision feels “right” to me, it’s hard to know exactly how this will play out over time; we will need to find ways to measure if it’s working and adjust if it’s not. I’m under no illusion that migrating from an in-office culture to a flexible, hybrid model will be simple and we have a lot to learn. But I’m glad we made this decision now, instead of waiting to see how COVID unfolds. It gives our employees the information they need for important life choices and it allows us to make long-term optimizations to the way we work.
My hope is that this recap is helpful to others who are working through similar issues. I’m sure some readers will disagree with our methods or conclusions—if this is you, I invite you to join the conversation and share your organization’s plans for the future. As challenging as this period of change has been, I’m truly excited to see what new models and experiments come out of it.