Working together while being apart: How we bridge the gap between offices, languages, and cultures
Georgia Vidler

Working together while being apart: How we bridge the gap between offices, languages, and cultures

At its heart, Canva’s mission is to be a truly global company; empowering anyone to design anything and publish anywhere. From our humble beginnings launching from a small office in Sydney Australia, today Canva is available across 190 countries in 100 languages—and we’re only 1% of the way through what we want to accomplish.

I joined Canva to look after international growth and localization. Back then, we were only available in English. My goal was to launch in our first non-English language, Spanish. Our small international team set out to figure out what it would take.

Canva today is available in more than 100 languages.

  • We have offices in two locations: Sydney and Manila.
  • We have in-country growth marketing teams in Brazil, France, India, Indonesia, and Japan.
  • We work with 100+ translators.

Throw in a bunch of time zones, language barriers, cultural nuances, and you’re really in for a challenge. Ensuring a ship of this size sails smoothly and efficiently has taken some time, and a lot of learning along the way.

Some of the Canva internationalization team

Some of Canva’s internationalization team.

Here are five things I’ve learned from my experience at Canva over the last two years—working with teams across multiple offices, countries, and languages—and the strategies and measures we now have in place to ensure that everyone remains a hardworking, happy camper.

1. Set up communication channels that keep everyone in the loop

It’s 2016. We’re a small team sitting around a table. Got a question or want to find out what someone’s working on? All you had to do was tap the shoulder of someone next to you. It’s 2018. We’re a global team that fill up tables, rooms, floors, offices, and buildings. We’re spanning across multiple countries, time zones, cultures, and perspectives. Something I’ve learnt is that in such situations you need to shift from synchronous to asynchronous communication.

Communication

Within our team, there’s a few tactics we use to ensure that everyone gets the same context, whether they’re sitting with me here in Sydney, or set up in co-working space in Mexico. We use different communication methods for different outcomes, ensuring that timezones and instantaneous availability wouldn’t become barriers for us when it comes to achieving our goals.

Here are some communication methods that worked for us, and are useful when working with global teams:

Make it easy for anyone to find team goals and strategies

Our company Jigsaw has existed from the beginning of time. An intensely extravagant spreadsheet, the Jigsaw is a set-up of all our teams and helps us manage our major projects while being able to track everyone’s goals for the quarter. It’s a great way to bring everyone together towards our big picture goals and show how every team’s work supports that mission.

Outside of this master Jigsaw, we also have team-specific jigsaws for our in-country and remote teams. These comprehensive documents, similarly, provide all of our on-ground global team members with visual cues and clarity on our current goals and values.

We break down goals into key projects such as launching project x; or business goals such as improving acquisition rates from x to y.

Canva presentations of some our recent team goals

Canva presentations of some our recent team goals.

Set up Slack channels around teams and shared goals

While emailing and Skype meetings are an effective and often necessary method of communication, here at Canva we love using Slack.

Aside from having a Slack channel for every interest and club under the sun, our Slack groups make working collaboratively on global projects much easier. Our Slack groups provide us with a constant and flowing forum between our in-country local teams, engineers, and localization teams, to give us visibility —in a matter of a few short messages—into our progress, ensuring that miscommunication and time restraints won’t hinder our ability to meet our goals and achieve milestones.

While our ‘i18n’—internationalization—channel discusses any engineering issues related to the internationalization of Canva, our ‘LQA’—Localization Quality Assurance—channels are used as a company-wide platform where the multicultural team at Canva contribute their knowledge of speaking other languages to flag any incidental issues or opinions about translations.

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Some of our Slack channels. Click image to enlarge.

Our ‘kudos’ channel is also used throughout the company so that our team members can continuously give credit where it’s due.

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Our ‘kudos’ channel on Slack. Click image to enlarge.

Set up regular face-to-face meetings to stay in touch and share big picture updates

When team members are far away it is important that we set a time that suits everyone to have a quick face-to-face conference call. We have an option of using either Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeetings, or Slack video calling to share what we’ve been working on, talk about what we’ve each achieved, what our upcoming priorities are, and to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Invest in onboarding new hires

The first few days really set the tone for a new hire. We want to make sure our newbies leave the office feeling excited and supported.

New team members are:

  • Assigned a mentor. This person becomes their go-to if a newbie is stuck or has a question.
  • Matched on a handful of coffee dates. This encourages them to make friends throughout the company and familiarize themselves with the goals and ongoings of other teams.
  • Set up on icecream dates with our founders. These sessions run through Canva’s pitch deck, and are an introduction to Canva’s vision, values, and what’s next. It also gives the newbies a chance to get to know the founders a bit more over a casual setting.
  • Provided with onboarding sessions. These are knowledge sharing sessions held by all of departments within Canva, so that our newbies can gain a holistic view of the company.

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Some of our onboarding presentations on Canva. Click image to enlarge.

Our remote Canva teams also get onboarding workshops through Canva presentations from different members of the team.

Remote teams onboarding presentation

Our remote team onboarding welcome presentation in Canva.

2. Create a sense of community that includes everyone

Building a product like Canva takes an incredibly talented team of engineers, designers, product managers, growth marketers, and a kick-ass operations team. As such, it’s important for us to hire all the people we need, and ensure they’re supported, fed, and is given clarity over the company’s goals. Multiply this diverse mix of people from different backgrounds and it’s imperative we create a workplace where everyone feels valued.

Here are some things that worked for us, and are worth implementing within your global teams:

Define shared global values

It’s important to us that all our teams at Canva identify with the global organization as much as they do with their local offices. We believe that when our team members feel a sense of belonging to the larger organization, they are more inclined to be open about their individual or team goals and values.

Organizational identification promotes:

  • Commitment
  • Performance
  • Job satisfaction

Our six company values guide all of our decisions about how we interact with each other and the world and help us in achieving our global goals.

Values1

Values2

Our Canva company values.

Use planning days to align team goals

It’s not often that we all find ourselves in the same room at the same time. However, every so often we like to fly our in-country teams, remote teams, and Manila team members to our HQ in Sydney (or vice versa) to attend (company-wide) planning days such as our Season Openers or planning bootcamps.

These opportunities give everyone at Canva the opportunity to meet, and have a great time together—usually over one of our famous lunches or our all out celebrations. It also give teams the opportunity to sit in the same room and talk about projects they are working on, upcoming goals, and any blockers they find that are hindering their abilities. We want to leave everyone feeling passionate, empowered, and part of a big community.

Use Canva to create a hub for employee bios

As part of our onboarding program we ask that all newbies create a little presentation about themselves using Canva which they then present to the whole company during Friday stand-ups. This approach at avoiding cookie-cutter employee bios allows others to find out more about their co-workers’ interests, and means that our global teams and remote teams can take part too! Every Canva employee bio is stored on the Canva Team page so anyone can revisit these fun little presentations anytime.

Employee bio

Jose’s introduction presentation made with Canva.

Take time to bond

In March 2016, the Canva team went on an incredible adventure to the Philippines as an opportunity to spend time together as a team.

After a fun-filled trip to the beautiful islands of El Nido, the international teams all worked together from the Manila offices for a week. With multiple offices and remote teams in shared spaces across the globe it was a rare opportunity to get the whole team together; sharing their best practices, standardising processes, and learning from one another.

The best part of the trip was getting to know everyone well and building strong bonds so that we can all keep working together smoothly and efficiently.

If an international trip seems like a bit of a distant dream why not try simple ways of bonding such as just going for a team coffee after lunch, or a night out for a fun team activity followed by dinner.

Team bonding

The team celebrating Blathnaid’s birthday.

3. Maintain a minimum viable structure to keep teams moving quickly.

With a team as globally scattered as ours, streamlining processes and procedures greatly improves the efficiency of our work. Well-tested steps optimize the way our international teams work, guarantee we have fewer errors or delays in our work, duplication of effort is kept to a minimum, and our Canva teams and users feel satisfied.

Here are some key things that worked for us, that might be useful for you:

Set up teams around key goals

We realized early on that having people grouped into teams where they didn’t share the same goals wasn’t effective. In 2015, we moved towards the current inverted pyramid teams structure which has allowed us to align on our goals and objectives.

Each small self-contained team has their own goal and the skills and expertise within that team to achieve them.

This model empowers each little ‘start-up’ team and gives them everything they need to make decisions to be able to move quickly.

Team structure

An example of how our teams are structured.

All our in-country local teams are small in size,self-sufficient, and have the necessary support with which to achieve their quarterly goals and make decisions quickly. Local teams are also provided the company playbook, and ample support from specialty leaders, project coordinators, and an efficient operations team in Manila.

Push for a ‘run with what you know’ attitude

When your teams are scattered geographically across the globe like ours are, it is important that every individual feels empowered and trusted to make decisions.

Our team structures and ‘run with what you know’ attitude guarantees we keep moving forward quickly and achieving our seasonal goals without having to wait for someone else to sign off on something, or say yes or no.

While we do have an organizational culture where everyone is kept in the loop, it is just as necessary for our remote teams and local teams to be able to have the freedom and creativity to make decisions on their own.

Use effective systems to eliminate the grunt work

Leveraging the right tools is important when you work with so many languages and have a weekly cycle of production. As a result, a majority of our workload ends up being large amounts of connection and communication to keep on top of everyone in the team, ensuring work is complete and error-free etc.

This is why we use Smarling. , a Translation Management System (TMS), which acts as a repository for all our translations and provides our translators with a work interface, via its Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tool.

Translation Memory (TM) allows us to reuse previous translations, either partially or fully, through a feature called ‘smart matching’. When presented with a new string,smart matching compares an English source string to existing entries in the TM, and determines how closely related the two strings are.

An example of how this works:

If we get the string Search for help. translated into French, it will be stored in our TM as Rechercher l'aide. If we get this string again in exactly the same context, it is automatically populated by the TM, or fully smart-matched. This means we save our translators from re-doing work that was already done. If we get this string again, but in a different context, like in another part of the app, we utilize the existing translation in the TM, but we ask the translator to double-check so that it is appropriate in its new context.

If we get a string like ‘Search for help, tips and features.’, we can leverage the entry in our TM for ‘Search for help.’ so the translator now only needs to translate the second part of the sentence, which makes the process more efficient and consistent.

This is called “fuzzy matching”, and allows us to save time and resources.

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An example of how Smartling works. Click image to enlarge.

Encourage written summaries before catch-ups

To make every catch-up session counts, we encourage remote teams, translators, and international teams to send through or collaborate on weekly work summary spreadsheets.

This allows us to:

  • keep on top of our work,
  • let others know what we’re all working on so that there are no overlapping tasks, and
  • ensure everyone is aware of the goals each individual and team are working towards.

4. Celebrate every win

Working hard and setting crazy big goals are common practices at Canva. But as a fast-growing company, having treats along the way is a crucial ingredient to our success. At Canva, we stray away from boring celebrations and like to go big! To celebrate reaching 100 languages we painted a mural of the word ‘creative’ in different languages across our new office wall and drove a food truck into the ground floor of the building.

Team celebrations

Some of our team celebrations from left: A tomatina festival to celebrate our Spanish launch; A multilingual mural to celebrate reaching 100 languages; Dress up as Steve Jobs day to celebrate launching our iOS app; A sumo match to celebrate launching in Japan; A holi festival to celebrate launching our Color Wiki; A Coachella celebration in Manila to celebrate the end of another season(quater).

5. Promote a continuously global perspective

Something worth being conscious of when growing and working with an international team are the various perspectives and cultures that everyone brings to the table. Friendliness in one culture may not always be warranted in another; whereas humor in one language may not always translate. It is important that we all learn to adapt, be aware, and respect each and every person we work with.

Heres some things to keep in mind when working with global teams:

Remember that English is just another language

At Canva, we constantly remind ourselves that while English may be one of the most universally used and commonly spoken languages, it is just another language. With Canva now available worldwide in 99 other languages, it is important to remove our company from an anglocentric way of thinking so that we are able to encompass the diverse societies that make up not only our Canva teams, but the world we live in.

International templates

Examples of international templates made in Canva.

Focus on diversity and inclusion

Building a diverse and inclusive company goes hand in hand with building a successful company. In fact, it’s one of our core values: ‘Being a force for good’—making the world a better place through positive actions, inclusion, and diversity.

Here’s some achievements we’re proud of:

  • Being active in our community: taking part in events and workshops including those run by Code Like a Girl, Node Girls, Rails Girls, Women Who Code, WomenHack, Women in Tech, and SheHacks in Sydney, as well as hosting the Quality Assurance and Product Design Meetups in Manila.
  • Hosting a number of site visits for our education partners UNSW, ANU, Sydney Uni, and Generation Entrepreneur.
  • Rolling out Interview Training and Unconscious Bias training.
  • Improving our hiring practices by expanding our talent pool and working to remove biases in our hiring process to create a level playing field where everyone has an equal chance to succeed.
  • Launching our Culture Survey, with an inclusion lens.
  • Maintaining gender-neutral bathrooms.
  • Working on supporting our working parents with generous paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements and a dedicated Parents Room.
  • Hosting events for all our expats so that they feel welcome and get a chance do some cool activities in and around Sydney.
  • Supporting marriage equality. In support of LGBTQI rights, we changed our logo on all our social media platforms and external facing pages (Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, Glassdoor, Stack Overflow) to the Canva pride logo. Check out our Express Yourself video, celebrating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia on 7 December 2017.
  • Working on diversifying the Canva Marketplace by recruiting contributors from international markets to ensure we have a highly diverse content library.
  • Creating a safe and mentally-supportive workplace.

Be aware

While being respectful and professional with everyone you work with goes without saying, it’s just as important when working globally to be extremely culturally aware.

Be conscious of public holidays and religious celebrations that may mean teams in other regions are off work or unable to respond.It’s important to address this by giving them time outside of work or writing them a quick email to acknowledge the event.

International holiday cards

Examples of international holiday celebration templates made in Canva.

Something else to be conscious of is the fact some co-workers are in regions where they may have slower internet connections making video conferencing more difficult. Patience in such situations is always just as important as awareness.

Final thoughts

In this increasingly technological world, having team members all over the globe is not only common practice, but necessary for companies such as our own.

We also know that opening the doors for communication helps break down cultural barriers and encourages people to be kind to each other, so we’re hoping the lessons we’ve learned help us all strengthen our connections—and more importantly, make everyone feel they belong, just the way they are. We don’t want Canva to be a company that just makes designs that look good, but one that helps shape a brighter future for everyone.

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