Why Canva is challenging its HQ privilege, and how you can too

Our three office locations as of 2019: Sydney, Manila and Beijing TL;DR: As Canva becomes an increasingly global company, we’re exploring a number of new practices for how we operate and scale as a distributed team. This week we renamed Canva’s largest Slack channels. Up until last week, Canva employees around the world missed out […]

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

Our three office locations as of 2019: Sydney, Manila and Beijing

TL;DR: As Canva becomes an increasingly global company, we’re exploring a number of new practices for how we operate and scale as a distributed team.

This week we renamed Canva’s largest Slack channels. Up until last week, Canva employees around the world missed out on valuable company-wide announcements that were inadvertently posted to #hq. Now that channel is called #sydney. We’ve also rebranded our #general channel to #team, so all of our employees from Beijing to Buenos Aires can follow important updates—without having to hear about what the Sydney team is eating for breakfast.

These naming changes might not look like a big deal, but they’re part of a wider push at Canva: we’re moving towards a distributed team culture that makes our global team feel more included. When you’re based out of your company’s global headquarters, it’s easy to feel that you’re at the centre of the universe. But for your company to have the best chance of success, you need to let go of your “HQ privilege” and embrace an inclusive culture which recognizes that location is another aspect of diversity.

Thanks to the internet and a new generation of cloud-based tools, it’s easier than ever for teams spread around the globe to collaborate. While Canva was born in Australia, today we have more than 500 team members across 3 offices (Sydney, Manila and Beijing), with plans to expand.

Of course running effective distributed teams isn’t just about overcoming technical challenges. Having worked from Australia and New York for global giants like Google and Twitter—back when they were first coming to terms with the concept of distributed teams—as well as having founded several companies myself, I’ve learned that it takes a lot of effort to learn how to work as an inclusive team.

It helps to view location as another axis of diversity and inclusion. When discussing diversity and inclusion we often talk about gender, race, age and sexuality, but where you are physically located can also have a huge effect on how included and empowered you are in a company.

Remote vs. distributed

The language of “remote” versus “distributed” is really important, but typically not quite understood by people who haven’t lived it. Those at headquarters often forget that they have a massive role to play in making distributed teams work, which includes letting go of that ingrained “HQ” and “remote” office mentality. This kind of thinking immediately positions those working remotely as outsiders who need to work harder to feel included.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

This is admittedly something we still have a habit of at Canva when dealing with our Manila and Beijing offices; as we become increasingly distributed we’re working hard to address this. The recent renaming of our #hq Slack channel to #sydney is an example of this. It’s now consistent with our #manila and #beijing channels, and the rebranded #team channel encourages people to send their valuable updates to the whole global team.

Learning the hard way

I’ve been on the “remote” side of the fence, where working outside HQ was a significant handicap which took a major toll on productivity.

As Google’s first engineering hire in Australia back in 2005, I worked with people in Hyderabad and New York. Thanks to the tyranny of time zones, I would need to wait 24 hours for even the simplest of code reviews, with every back and forth slowing things down by another day. Minor issues could drag on for weeks.

In the spirit of teamwork, and without the benefit of experience, I put the onus on myself to make this arrangement work. I started staying up until 6 a.m., just so I could get some synchronous interaction with New York. Meanwhile, my boss in Australia – the founder of Google Maps, Lars Rasmussen – would stay up until 3 a.m. so he could rubber stamp my code.

Later in my career, I joined Twitter by way of acquisition. My team founded Twitter’s New York engineering office and we were the first engineering team outside of San Francisco, with the exception of TweetDeck.

Again, working in a remote office was a handicap. If I needed to know how to start a server then I needed to ask someone in San Francisco. They would IM me the commands, to compensate for scarce documentation.

Another time I was the only person outside of headquarters invited to a meeting, and the entire meeting happened without me. I spent that time frantically emailing and calling people in San Francisco, desperately trying to get someone to dial me in, with no success.
Meanwhile, just like many other high-growth startups, a lot of “hallway” decisions were made during these early days of Twitter, and these decisions weren’t always communicated to the New York team.

What’s necessary for distributed is valuable for all

So what are the principles that underpin successful distributed teams? Firstly, it’s key to recognize that what’s necessary for a distributed team is actually valuable for all teams.

Going back to Twitter, I couldn’t start the server because I needed to talk to someone in a different time zone. What I really needed was documentation, so I could be more self-sufficient. It turns out, having access to documentation is valuable for every team member, not just to those in other offices.

Principle 1: If it’s necessary for a distributed team, it’s valuable for all teams.

There are tons of examples of this. I recently learned this is called the “curb cut” effect, after the practice of cutting a ramp into the curb at an intersection so you don’t need to step down onto the road and then up again when you get to the other side.

Initially curb cuts were intended to help people in wheelchairs, but they ended up benefiting lots of people – those riding a bicycle or pushing a stroller, or those with impaired vision. Something which is critical for one group often turns out to be valuable for everybody.

Another principle is favouring asynchronous practices within your organization, making it possible for people to work effectively in their own time zone without a reliance on synchronous interactions.

Principle 2: Asynchronous practices reduce coupling and increase empowerment.

Make it easier for your people to work from any city in the world, and you’ve also made it easier for the people in your office to work from home, from the road, or work unusual hours. This is especially valuable for people with families. Adopting asynchronous practices gives your team autonomy, but it requires a high-trust and high-communication environment and a team of responsible individuals.

Some examples of Canva’s asynchronous practices:

  • Preparing and sharing ideas, decisions, and meeting notes in Google Docs so that others can collaborate or refer back to them
  • Using messaging tools like Slack to loop people in on conversations that are relevant to them
  • Recording talks and all-hands meetings for people to watch in their own time

Principle 3: Adopt distributed culture before you have a distributed team

It’s important to adopt this kind of distributed-friendly culture before you establish a distributed team. Otherwise, it tends to put the burden on the new office to effect change. One great example of how we do this at Canva is we record all company-wide and engineering talks and make them accessible to anyone in the company. This practice is valuable straight away for all local employees who may be on vacation or out sick, in order to catch up, which as we become more distributed makes it easier for all employees worldwide to stay connected.

Communication is key

A big part of making this all work is transparency and communication, which in turn builds trust. If you don’t have transparency, even within a single office, you hear people utter phrases like “why wasn’t I in the meeting?” This is exacerbated in a distributed team environment.

A good way to address this is by trying to become a hive mind (where once one person knows something, everyone knows something) and share information by default. If you learn something valuable, make sure your team finds out about it.

Three words my Canva team are probably already sick of hearing me say are “proactive written communication”. This to me is the cornerstone – not just saying information, but writing it down, and not waiting to be asked for information, but sharing proactively. This includes ensuring everyone knows what everyone else is working on.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

Many teams at Canva use “Slack Shares” to keep each other on the same page.

At my last company we had a Slack channel called #worklog. Whenever you switch to working on something new, you write a single sentence in the Slack channel. There’s no conversation, just push updates like “I’m working on the new foo widget” or “I’m having a sales meeting”. One of the things this does is help people identify when they’re working on the same task at the same time, and should talk to each other.

Concise communication is crucial via every channel and to mitigate “information overload”, I encourage the author of any updates to value their audience’s time. Spend a few extra minutes to make your communications shorter and easier to digest.

Tip: when writing long emails, start with a 1 line summary, and bold key points.

Instead of writing a solid 10-page email and expecting everyone in the company to read it, use techniques like adding summary points at the top. For example: “tl;dr: if you use the test harness, you need to update your code” and then more detail. Putting important points in bold, including people’s names, can also help readers navigate through the text.

This approach of valuing proactive, written communication can also shape your hiring profile to benefit your global team as it grows. In the beginning of any new office, you need to err on the side of self starters and strong communicators or else it becomes very easy for those outside the largest office to become out of sight and out of mind.

Look each other in the eye

At Canva, we are increasingly using video conferencing between offices to keep teams connected. If you want people to feel included and that everybody’s voice is heard then, as a company, you need to invest in lowering the barrier to starting a conversation.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

Our Canva Manila and Sydney teams brainstorming together over video.

One of the things we did at my previous startup was establish a permanent video conference link between the offices in Sydney and San Francisco. Our daily stand ups would run in a virtual circle around the already-connected video conferencing TV. This always-on connection had the added benefit of while coding during the day you could call out “Hey Jeremy” to a person in San Francisco to ask “why do we use this library instead of that?”. At this point you could both wheel your chairs over to the screen and have a high-bandwidth real-time conversation, rather than talking past each other using tools like Slack.

We experimented with the hardware and the software on both ends to get clear audio and a great user experience. In particular, audio clipping and unreliable network connections can exclude people from having their voice heard in key meetings. Those outside of HQ tend to feel the burden of this issue asymmetrically, yet generally have a harder time influencing hardware decisions in other offices, so ensure the responsibility to invest in reliable video connections is distributed.

As part of Canva Sydney’s upcoming move into our new office, our Internal Infrastructure team has carried out a major upgrade to our video conferencing setup, from redesigning our network to investing in new hardware for each meeting room. We expect the result to be a seamless end-to-end experience from making video calls to sharing content with our distributed team.

Boots on the ground

Regardless of how effective your communication channels are, travel is another really important tactic for building strong distributed teams. Even if you implement all these other approaches, like always-on video conferencing, meeting in-person is still a valuable component of building relationships and working together.

We regularly invite our Canva Manila teams for workshops in Sydney to iterate on tools that we’ve built in-house. Oftentimes, this meeting can be the first time that the people building the tool and the people using the tool are able to actually sit down together in the same room.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

Some members of our Sydney team and Manila team workshopping together in Sydney.

To build a strong connection it’s really valuable to understand each other as humans, not just as co-workers. Visiting each other’s offices and home cities, bonding over meals, and meeting colleagues’ families all help build empathy and a deeper connection that helps us work together.

You also need to learn about different cultures and communication styles. Australians, Americans, Filipinos – we all have our differences. It’s my responsibility to change how I communicate with others, not just expect others to become extroverts so they can talk with this loud-mouthed Australian.

Mistakes to avoid

The biggest mistake that businesses can make when it comes to managing distributed teams is not being proactive about creating an inclusive culture and developing distributed-friendly practices.

After this, the second biggest mistake is embracing distributed processes but letting the responsibility rest solely on the new team. It shouldn’t fall on your new team in China to lobby for the video units in your Sydney office to be upgraded so they can interact effectively. Nor should it always fall on them to travel to the your office to strengthen relationships; the responsibility to travel needs to be shared.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

Canva employees from Sydney and Manila spending time together in the Manila office.

Remote vs distributed teams graph structure

The team at our Canva China launch event.

One of the keys to success is having support all the way from the top in your company. If the company doesn’t truly believe in distributed teams, then anyone who is pushing for these changes is going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Being a distributed team is increasingly important to Canva, as the majority of Canva’s users are now non-English speakers. As our user base rapidly becomes more global, our employee base is also becoming more global, with increasing numbers of employees outside of our Sydney office.

We’re adapting, but we acknowledge that we haven’t got it all figured out yet. We have a lot of inertia based on having been historically a predominantly Sydney-based company. We are embracing the fact that we’re a distributed team and we want to make everyone feel included in that team, as we progress on our journey of empowering the world to design.

Thanks to Andy Stewart, Paul Szabo, Maisie Littaua and Liz McKenzie for feedback on this post, and to YOW! CTO Summit and Sydney Technology Leaders meetup for providing a forum for these ideas.

Hear Adam discussing these ideas and more at the recent YOW! CTO Summit here:

For more details on our current job openings, visit Canva’s careers page here. Know someone who would benefit from reading this article? Why don’t you share it with them here:

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Why Canva is challenging its HQ privilege, and how you can too was originally published by Canva at Product at Canva on March 13, 2019.

Source: Canva