Best practices For Working Across Time Zones
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
Scheduling a meeting for 10+ busy people can be a daunting challenge — doing it for a globally distributed team in different time zones can be downright intimidating. However, it doesn't need to be.
As more and more companies are going remote, there's a whole new wave of companies who are working on perfecting the art of working as a globally distributed team. It makes a lot of sense. If you're already working remotely, why not tap into the enormous global talent pool to find the absolute best people for the job? Well, the answer for some people is that they dont know how to work across different time zones.
The reality is, working with a distributed team does take a bit more planning. It takes a team of people dedicated to getting it right and a willingness to iterate along the way. Here are some best practices for working remotely in a distributed setting that you can start doing today.
Setting Working Hours
Maybe the most obvious challenge of working with a team in different time zones is trying to match working hours. Rather than operate 100% asynchronously or require that the team is online for the same 8 hours of the day, meet somewhere in the middle.
Set up a partial day overlap where the entire team is online for 2-4 hours together for any necessary synchronous work like meetings. The rest of the day, employees can work during which ever hours make the most sense or are the most convenient for them. This option can also be utilized on certain days of the week (i.e. a three hour overlap on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays).
Make You Own Boundaries
Work can seem never ending when colleagues around the world are sending messages while you are trying to sleep. It's up to everyone on the team to establish working hours and set their own personal work boundaries. Start by adding your working hours to your calendar and making them public on work platforms like Slack. If someone violates the boundaries you set, let them know and make sure to propose an alternative. However at the end of the day, its important for each individual to take ownership of their own working hours to avoid the potential burn out that comes with being online 24 hours a day.
Respect Other Working Hours
Everyone needs to make their own boundaries, but thats only half the battle — their needs to be a mutual agreement to respect those boundaries. This can be a difficult challenge, but in a distributed setting, its essential that everyone learns some timezone etiquette. Whenever you want to schedule a meeting, first make sure that the meeting time is at a reasonable hour and within the allocated working hours of your teammate. Then, try your best to propose the meeting time in their time zone so they dont have to do the conversion. If you have to communicate with someone about something thats not urgent and you know they are offline, consider scheduling an email to avoid pinging them with notifications about non urgent things. The point is to be mindful of your communication.
Communication is Key
When working across time zones, its important to be even more communicative about needs and asks than in a normal setting. Start by making it incredibly clear if something is urgent or a “nice to have when theres time”. When making an ask or setting a deadline, take into account your colleagues time zone and make sure your request is reasonable. While it might be 9:00am for you and having something by the end of day seems reasonable, you might be pinging your colleague right as they are signing off for the day.
Be Clear about Time Zones
Imagine, a San Francisco based manager tells their Singapore based colleague that they need the proposal done by 11:00am the next day. Not only is it entirely unclear whose 11:00am they are referring to, it's not even clear which day they are referring to (it's already tomorrow in Asia!). Always include time zones and dates when talking about meeting times and deadlines and never assume that the other person knows what you are talking about. Want to be everyone's favorite coworker? Propose meeting times in the other person's time zone so they don't have to do the conversion, it's a simple thing that goes a long way.
Utilize Asynchronous Work
When working with a distributed team, asynchronous work must move to the forefront. Set up processes and tools in advance that work asynchronously. You can start by doing async standups in Slack or have weekly progress updates from team leads through recorded video messages. The point is, prioritize your precious overlap hours for the highest leverage activities and take the rest to email or Slack.
Time Zone Tools
One recurring challenge for distributed teams is managing different time zones for coworkers. This becomes important when scheduling meetings, waiting for responses, and generally being aware of colleagues working hours. Instead of trying to do this manually all the time, use a time zone tool like Figure It Out to help you keep all of your time zones straight.
As hard as you try to schedule meetings that accommodate everyone's time zones, it's not always possible. In these situations, record meetings so even those who can't attend will be able to drop in and watch it later. This also helps to create a log of real time conversations that can be referenced later.
Voodle Video Message
When working remotely, you need to leverage the latest technology to stay connected. Voodle allows you to send short video messages to colleagues. Since it can be hard to connect in real time with coworkers across the globe, send them an async video message to give them an update on progress, notes from a meeting they missed, or a quick ask about something they have been working on. This way, you dont have to ask a colleague on the other side of the world to stay up late for a 15 minute update meeting.
Another element of globally distributed teams is working across different countries and cultures. This can be an extremely valuable asset in terms of insights and perspectives, but can also be a challenge if it's not something that is recognized. Make sure to prioritize allowing your team to take off holidays in their own country, rather than holidays in the country where the business is based.
Finally, while the world is certainly moving toward remote, distributed teams, there is still value in spending time together when possible. Organize an offsite retreat where the team can get together and have some bonding time as well as plow through some work challenges. While getting the whole team together can be expensive, the value to your company can far outweigh the costs. Offsites can be for the entire company or on a team by team basis to help spread out costs throughout the year.
Working with a team across different time zones presents unique challenges to some traditional processes that we have all come to know. It takes a carefully blended mix of compassion, flexibility, and asynchronous work to get it done right. However, when done correctly, it also opens up a whole new world of talent and allows people to live where they do their best work. By following the best practices above, your team can work efficiently and collaboratively no matter where they are in the world.
Produced in collaboration with Voodle.