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How do some of the biggest startups stay on top of international teams?

For many startups from countries like Australia and New Zealand, the relatively small size of the local market pushes them to go global, and quickly.

That mindset means learning how to manage offices in multiple countries, time zones and languages — something that requires some quick adaption.

Laura Cardinal, global general manager at the accounting software company Xero, handles a team of 150 product developers, engineers and product managers across Melbourne, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand.

She said learning to work with teams in multiple locations was a significant learning curve. "I took it for granted that you could just walk up to someone and say 'hi' and gauge their facial expression," she explained.

Cardinal had to figure out how to use technology to emulate her preferred way of interacting. That meant using a lot of the Google product suite, particularly Google Hangout.

Using such tools also means she can stay away from formal emails, which she views as draining. "I think one of the biggest indicators of teams that have low trust is very long emails that take a long time to get a small point across," she said.

A video call or a quick message on chat works a lot better to establish trust when you can't physically be in the same room.

While a company like Atlassian, which makes workplace software such as the chat platform HipChat, has perhaps a technological advantage in managing international teams, it too faces some unique challenges.

Dom Price, head of R&D program management at the company, told Mashable Australia its teams are highly distributed. Not simply in Atlasssian offices in Australia, the U.S. and Poland, but also remote teams who might work from home in France or even Tasmania.

The company, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange in late 2015, still maintains a large office in Sydney.

"You've got to hire the smartest people where you can find them and they're not always on your doorstep," he said. "We have to face that problem every day."

One strategy the company has chosen is using open documents — what Price called having "one version of the truth." That means no matter what changes were made overnight, when employees arrive in the morning, they have access to the latest version of everything.

Price, who works in Atlassian's Sydney office, also emphasised the importance of personal contact whenever possible. "We're not afraid to fly people around the world, just to have that face to face connection," he said.

Cardinal agreed that meeting in-person is invaluable. 

"I think that if anybody is going to take on the role of leading teams in different locations, if the company is not going to invest in travel, I'd think twice before doing it," she said. "Meeting in-person helps digital relationships from there onwards."

The quality of that travel is important, however. It's necessary to avoid what she called "flyby bombings." 

"You come in and try and solve everything and fix everything because you're physically present. I think that's a quick way to undo everything you've built up," she said. Instead, she advised having a beer and getting to know people.

No matter how global the company, each location is going to have its own methods and rituals, where one region's workplace culture may not always translate. 

"I find Australian businesses have this nice kind of scrappiness," Price said. "Sometimes when you take that message to other countries or cultures, it doesn't always carry the same weight or gravitas."

Setting out loose guidelines for work interactions, including having no phones in meetings, can help with that. As well as ensuring cultural details are appreciated. "With our Polish guys, they love structure, and so we always make sure we have an agenda for our meetings with them," he explained. 

All these online mechanisms and global hours mean it can be tempting to always be online. Nevertheless, Price pushed back on blaming the tools.

"We build our tools to be default always on, always open," he said. "We have to make sure people don't abuse that and don't confuse that with thinking you always need to be on."

In his view, the ability to switch off should be part of company culture as well as come from personal discipline. For some of his team's work, that can mean working at the time that's best for them.

"We have some rough business hours, but given the nature of what our business is, I want them to solve the problem when they're in their zone," he explained.

While she said she was lucky there was only a small time difference between Australia and New Zealand, Cardinal suggested it was still important to try and not bother people when they're not expected to be at work, as well as keeping on top of their personal details.

"You have to make a conscious effort to remember things like birthdays, and maybe when they've gone above and beyond, because you don't have that face to face as a reminder."

"It feels like you're married to 10 people at once," she laughed.

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