How Canva went global without compromising its culture

Crafting a unified culture is no mean feat – and harder still when your employees live all over the world. But Jennie Rogerson, global head of people at Canva, has risen to the challenge

Canva Jennie Rogerson

From Australia to Austria, China to the Czech Republic, the multinational design platform Canva has truly gone global since its inception 10 years ago. Headquartered in Sydney, the company has operations in eight countries and a staff of 3,500. Making sure that each one feels a part of the Canva family is the responsibility of Jennie Rogerson, the firm’s global head of people. 

But Rogerson’s job is not a straightforward HR gig. Much of Canva’s expansion occurred through acquiring other organisations, making its new workforce a patchwork of backgrounds, cultures and experiences. She has had to craft a people strategy that works within this type of business growth.

Why culture should be core to your acquisition strategy 

Key to making this work, says Rogerson, is placing culture at the core of the acquisition strategy. Finding the right products or services to add to the offering is usually the primary reason for an acquisition, but the people and the company’s values are also critical.

“It’s important that the product or service you acquire is exactly what you’re looking to add to your wheelhouse,” she says. “But it is equally important that the team you bring on board are spectacularly values-aligned. It makes the runway so much clearer.”

She points to one of the company’s most recent acquisitions, the London-based data-visualisation platform Flourish. It had interest from other companies but declined because the cultures didn’t align. With Canva, Flourish was confident it would have an owner who understood the business and where it wanted to go next, explains Rogerson. 

I truly don’t believe that connection can only be had in person, in the office

Getting this right is the best way to ensure a smooth transition and that teams gel as soon as possible. At Canva, Rogerson’s strategy is to give the leadership of the companies they bring on board as much autonomy as possible. “We don’t stand in their way,” she says. “These are already successful companies, so whatever is working there is incredibly valuable; you don’t want to mess with that.” 

A potential problem with this strategy is that the employees who come on board in an acquisition could stick stubbornly to their former company and not participate in the culture of their new one. This hasn’t been an issue at Canva, says Rogerson, taking Flourish as an example. 

“There is an evolution after acquisition,” she says. “At the beginning, they would see themselves as Flourish-acquired-by-Canva but as we work together that distinction fades.”

It’s important, she says, not to sweep away all vestiges of the former organisation in pursuit of one-ness. Flourish has kept its logo on the company cups, for example. And although the office has been largely ‘Canva-ified’ by adding greenery and the same call booths they have in every office, they have kept murals referencing company in-jokes. “I think it’s great because the harmony of Canva and Flourish wouldn’t be possible if Flourish didn’t exist in the first place.”

How Canva decides where to open new offices

Culture is just as important when expanding through opening offices in new locations. When Rogerson joined the company, it had a presence in Australia, the Philippines and China, and was looking for a location in the US. While a city like New York might seem the obvious choice for many businesses, for Canva it didn’t have the right feel. Instead, it initially settled on Austin, Texas, and has since opened offices in California. 

“Canva’s global strategy has evolved, but we always want to be specific where we open. We want a relaxed city, kind of like Sydney; with great talent, lots of eateries, not particularly corporate.” 

Beyond cultural fit, there are practical considerations in planning global expansion. To keep teams working effectively, Canva locates functions together. Every office has people focused on operations, legal, marketing and finance, but the core product-design engineering teams, for example, are based in Australia, while the data-visualisation team is in London. 

“It’s important to keep that containment and the crossover of working hours as similar as possible,” she says.

Time zones are a major consideration. With an HQ in Australia, Canva selected foreign branches to maximise overlap, another reason why Austin was a good choice for the business. 

“It’s about choosing locations carefully,” says Rogerson. “It isn’t just about where you can hire talent. It’s also about where teams can work well together.” 

How to build a strong culture globally 

To build a connection across time zones and locations, Canva has a range of working practices to help teams. When a group in one region reaches a critical mass of 20 or 30 people, the company will open a ‘campus’ – a large-scale office, complete with kitchen and common spaces. For smaller groups, it offers hubs which are similar to co-working spaces. 

The sort of space they open is entirely led by the people in the location. “In Adelaide, the group really gel and are over-using that space, so we’re looking to expand it,” says Rogerson. “In other areas people don’t naturally congregate as much, so we keep the smaller co-working spaces.” 

Culture isn’t something you stick on the wall. It’s something you feel when you join a place and you know if it’s for you or not

During the pandemic, its whole office strategy was moot as the world moved to working from home – an option that didn’t exist for Canva employees pre-Covid. “Our two tenets for remote working were: flexibility and connection,” Rogerson explains. This meant not only making sure everyone had whatever they needed to work from wherever they needed to, but also finding ways to protect the culture.

This included “sacred lunch hours” when an open Zoom link was provided so people could join and chat with peers across all eight countries. Canva also has more than 400 clubs focused on everything from chess and Dungeons & Dragons to wine-tasting, and these all moved online. 

These online clubs stuck even when lockdowns ended because they offer the opportunity for colleagues from all over the world to hang out and socialise. “I truly don’t believe that connection can only be had in person, in the office,” says Rogerson. “It can be built when people are intentional about it and want to build a great culture.”

So how do you create a culture that feels common to all but still allows for local identity? “Ultimately, you don’t,” says Rogerson. “You hire great people who live by the same values and the culture evolves. People should feel they can shape it. Culture isn’t something you stick on the wall. It’s something you feel when you join a place – and you know if it’s for you or not.”

Nevertheless, Canva does have a foundation on which this evolving global culture is built that has two missions. The first is to become the most valuable company in the world. And the other is to do the most good it can. If you are looking to hire ambitious, socially conscious talent, that’s a pretty good clarion call.