TPP #4: How to Create a Productive Environment with Shamal Singh

Welcome to Productive People, my blog and podcast series dedicated to learning from productive people who are smashing their goals and getting stuff done.

I'm a big believer that the environment you're in plays a huge role in determining how productive you are for the day. If you're fortunate enough to work in a well designed and visually appealing environment, you're far more likely to produce quality outcomes than if you had to work in some cupboard somewhere.

In episode 4 of The Productivity Podcast I had the pleasure of talking to Shamal Singh from Canva. Shamal comes from an architectural background and now plays the role of “Vibe Manager” where his job is to make sure the people are happy and working effectively. He helped design the current Canva office and spoke to me about what he's done with the environment to ensure people have a space to produce their best work. Listen to the show below!

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1. Remove Obstacles to Allow for Creativity (6:20)

One of the biggest things Shamal works on is removing distractions and obstacles that can prevent people from doing their best work. By removing mundane tasks and some of the common “office protocol” we see in the workplace, staff are able to work in a space that allows for creativite and innovative thinking.

Having a smaller office means Shamal can interact with more people one-on-one. By walking round and coming into contact with people on a regular basis he can identify problems quickly and fix them without having to go through a long review process.

Canva employees don't even have to worry about what they're going to have for lunch as they have a chef prepare the meals every day – YUM! 100% of the staff at Canva come together at lunch to eat and chat. So you get accountants talking to engineers and designers when they would normally never interact with one another. The food provided at Canva is always really healthy (with the odd cheeky snacks thrown in). this is to promote healthy living and maintain energy levels in the office.

Canva Eating

2. Energy Management at Canva (11:10)

Staff at Canva have the choice to go boxing and practice yoga to help with their general health and energy management. This is all completely voluntary and not forced on anyone. Because everyone is so diverse, they try to avoid creating sub-groups within the team and these activities bring everyone together.

3. Managing Distractions and Office Design at Canva (12:10)

Distractions are kept to a minimum. For example, music isn't played throughout the office and people use headphones to listen to their own music. This is also a sign that someone is “in the zone” and not to be disturbed. Tools like Hipchat are used to communicate with one another without necessarily breaking someones concentration. While this is commonly used, people are also encouraged to get up and talk to one another in person and meeting rooms are available if people want to have a longer discussion without disturbing anyone.

A deliberate choice was made to give everyone their own desk instead of using a “hot desking” system. This was done so that everyone could have their own space in the office and to keep teams together. e.g. all the marketing guys sit together, as do the engineers and designers. The office has a couple of lounge areas which are used for casual chats and team meetings once a week. Then there are a number of smaller meeting rooms which offer people privacy to take a phone call without disturbing others. People are encouraged to move between these spaces to keep their environment interesting and it's very much up to the individual where they choose to work.

Canva Meeting Room

4. Productivity Tools & Routines at Canva (18:10)

Canva has a number of offices around the world which they keep in “sync”. Teams are distributed between the offices, so you have the customer happiness team in Manilla and the engineers in Sydney. There's a strict schedule which people follow for keeping in touch with key individuals in the other offices (via Skype) so that people from the customer happiness team can talk to engineers and report on problems using Jira.

The design team relies on Trello for keeping track of ideas and projects. Shamal uses four boards for keeping tabs on his workload; “To-Do”, “In Progress”, “Waiting on Someone” and “Done”. It's really important to have this “waiting” section so you separate the work you need to do from the work that's out of your control. This helps to remove any unnecessary stress as you're to-do list is more manageable.

The engineers use a Kanban system to limit the amount of work they take on at once. So they can only start a new task when something else has been completed; this reduces the amount of “in progress” work at any one time and ensures the team is constantly completing tasks. Sprints are also planned on a weekly basis. The team will look at the backlog of work and determine the workload for the week. One of the keys here is to make sure the sprints are realistic and achievable. The sprints and all of the necessary tasks are loaded into Trello where everyone can see the workload and where tasks are allocated to the different engineers.

While these systems exist, it's important to remain flexible. If urgent work comes up or a big bug needs fixing, the team needs to be able to pivot and address these changes. Because Canva is growing so quickly, they need to be able to move with the changes and address the urgent tasks that need attention.

Canva Meeting

5. More About Canva (29:05)

Canva now has over 2.3 million users, has helped produce over 20 million designs and the company is still less than 2 years old.

I love Canva because it's so quick and easy to use. If you're not a designer and aren't familiar with tools like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, you can use Canva to produce most of the graphics you need. It's sort of like the 80/20 of design software – it has 20% of the tools that allow you to produce 80% of the designs that you'll ever need and you can open and edit in Canva quicker than it takes Adobe Illustrator to even load on your computer. In this way, I really view Canva as a productivity tool for design.

The templates in Canva are a great place to get started. So if you need to produce a Facebook cover image or blog header there are a bunch of really beautiful templates to inspire you and get you started.


6. Shamal's Working Routine (34:40)

Due to the nature of  Shamal's role he likes to stay in the moment so that he can sense the vibe in the office and quickly make changes if he needs to. As Shamal puts it; if he came into work on a Monday, planned out his whole week and then locked himself in a room for a week to do the work, he may get through the week and then work out that what he's worked on isn't that important. Instead Shamal likes to have flexibility in his routine so that he can keep on top of the vibe in the office and quickly address new challenges and changes.

One of the keys to this is to really enjoy what you do. When you enjoy it, you don't mind doing it. This means you're not rushing through your work to get things out of the way. Instead you can take your time to make sure you're doing a good job and really helping people.



  1. Have a think about what you can do in your environment to make it more visually appealing and an interesting space to be in.
  2. How can you remove distractions in your environment? Do you need to educate others about how you'd like to work?
  3. Allow yourself to be flexible to changes. Don't schedule back to back appointments and tasks. Allow for spontaneous work.

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