Tips for working across time zones
A short guide on how remote teams can improve their collaboration skills across several time zones
With the rise of online businesses and a sudden increase in working from home or in remote locations during the COVID-19 pandemic, remote teams have become commonplace.
Because of this shift to a remote work environment, companies can now hire employees from anywhere in the world. There are significant advantages to hiring across time zones: the talent pool is unlimited when proximity to the workplace is no longer an issue, international employees can bring more diversity of thought to a team, and the entire team benefits from greater flexibility and fewer workplace distractions.
However, if you head up a remote team, you'll also know that time zone differences can cause a host of problems, including difficulty collaborating and scheduling meetings across time zones, delayed responses, feelings of isolation and wasted time due to lack of information and communication.
We've compiled some tips to help you maximize the benefits of remote collaboration and come up with solutions ahead of time to some of the problems that may arise from working with remote employees across international time differences.
Set clear work-life boundaries for your team
When working with a team across time zone boundaries, it's easy to allow your business to eat up all of your waking hours—maybe some of your sleeping ones as well. If you have an international team, with members from San Francisco to Dubai, the sun will never set on your business operations. With work being done around the clock, it might be tempting for you to constantly check your email or communication platforms in case someone needs you. Of course, having remote employees likely means you'll have to make sacrifices to occasionally communicate outside of business hours (for example, when you need to schedule online meetings that include the entire team), but unless scheduled, synchronous communication is absolutely necessary, you should establish preferred work hours and stick to them as much as possible. By the same token, make sure you aren't pressuring your team to become consumed by workplace communication when they should be off the clock.
Constant mental preoccupation with work is a recipe for burnout and won't benefit your company in the long term.
One of the ways you can ensure that you and your team can establish healthy work-life boundaries and avoid burnout—an eventual problem for both you and your company—is to set up Google Calendars or a similar system that you can share with each other, with the understanding that though team members may contact each other outside of these hours, they should not expect a response until working hours have started again in their coworker's time zone. This will help to avoid communication gaps and frustration at delayed responses. If your company is flexible enough, this system also allows for employees to work around personal and family obligations, perhaps gaining the freedom to work outside of traditional office hours if that fits better with their lifestyle and reduces their stress levels. This flexibility can also lead to greater job satisfaction—a win for your company.
During synchronous meetings, accommodate remote teams
One of the disadvantages to having remote employees in different time zones is the difficulty of finding meeting times that work for everyone. Unfortunately, if your team is scattered far enough, synchronous communication may mean that occasionally someone is forced to take one for the team by getting up early or staying up late. However, you can try to avoid inconvenient times as much as possible by making the most of overlap times. If you can find a time when most or all of your team is on the clock, prioritize meetings and real-time communication during those slots, and make sure your team members know when those times are so that they can optimize communication among themselves.
Use online tools
There are a number of tools that can make organizing meetings across time zones simpler. You can use websites like timezone.io to keep track of where and when each team member is. You can also make sure to set your group calling tool to specific time zones to avoid any chance of confusion. If you're sending out a meeting agenda ahead of time, you might even include the time for each time zone your team members are in to ensure that everyone has the correct time: for example, “the meeting will be at 9 am CST, 10 am EST, 11 am AST.” Another simple way to ensure clarity is to display all meeting times in twenty-four hour time, avoiding possible am / pm mistakes. If you need a visual aid to keep track of time difference calculations, everytimezone.com will display your own zone next to every other one, eliminating the constant headache of leaving out an hour or accidentally moving an hour back instead of forward when you haven’t quite finished your morning coffee.
Always exercise fairness
When you run into situations in which at least a few team members are forced to meet at an inconvenient time to accommodate the rest of the team, try to even out the suffering—the minority time zone shouldn't always have to be the one losing sleep—rotate the odd hours if you can. Especially with a geographically disconnected team, the last thing you want to do is foster a sense of unfairness or favoritism in the workplace if your goal is for employees to collaborate and work together—after all, employees who feel that they are treated fairly will typically have more commitment to their workplace and more trust in their employers.
Keep a record of everything
And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, record those meetings! No matter how hard you try to make it work, the reality of a remote team is that emergencies could crop up at the last minute and force someone to miss something. Posting the recorded meeting to a designated area and dedicating a Slack Channel or mode of communication to quick questions can allow folks to catch up in a worst-case scenario.
Make sure everyone has enough information
Although we've given you some tips for making remote meetings work, many experts suggest that it's often better to avoid a meeting altogether in favor of asynchronous communication. According to the Harvard Business Review, many executives spend an average of 23 hours a week in meetings—an increase of over 50% since the 1960s. While meetings are often necessary for project collaboration, perhaps especially for remote companies, you may want to also consider the other productive ways in which that time could be spent. Since arranging a meeting time can already be a headache for remote companies—it’s not as simple as getting everyone to walk into a conference room—it’s always a good idea to ask whether a team meeting is really necessary.
If you want to avoid meeting overload and ensure efficacy across time zones, however, clear asynchronous communication is an absolute must. Coworkers can’t communicate details in quick chats around the coffee maker, so every detail of collaborative projects needs to be clearly spelled out in other ways.
We’ve come up with a few suggestions for ensuring clear asynchronous communication so you can avoid wasting time on unnecessary meetings and maximize your team’s collaboration despite distance.
Make the most of work hours by organizing time zones to your advantage
Rather than thinking of time zones as a nuisance that gets in the way of organizing meetings and syncing schedules, try to leverage these differences to your advantage. For example, if you have two team members in nearly opposite locations, they may be able to work as a remarkably efficient team since one of each will always be on the clock. Though it may be difficult for them to schedule synchronous communication, they will have the advantage of waking up to feedback from each other and immediately being able to put it into action for the next workday. In this way, their extreme time difference is actually an advantage, allowing them to work as a perfect tandem team.
If your company requires a lot of collaborative work, you can also organize team members from north to south rather than east to west. Though they might be geographically far away from each other, they could end up being in the same or a similar time zone.
At the very least, make sure that members of your team who collaborate are aware of each other's work hours so that, for example, an employee in a later zone can make sure to send key information to team members in earlier zones before clocking off and becoming unavailable for the rest of their working day.
Consider streamlining your communication tools and calendar
Apps like Slack and Google Calendar are ideal tools for remote teams and can greatly improve communication
Online work can be confusing when projects are spread out across various platforms and communication channels. One way to improve communication is to get organized, limit the number of platforms and have designated places to leave collaborative work where others can find it. For example, a shared Google Drive with clearly labelled folders is one simple way to share work in progress. You should also establish clear methods of communication. Does the team mostly share information over Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, or email? The last thing you want is to have employees waste time searching multiple different platforms for information on the same project, or, worse yet, miss key information altogether.
Give employees multiple deadlines
Sometimes working on projects across time zones means waiting for feedback because of out-of-sync working hours, and these delays can set projects back. If you can't leverage time differences to your advantage, establish deadlines for even minor details so that employees know when to expect feedback or contribution from each other. This ensures that everyone has the same expectations and that projects can move forward at a planned pace.
Be specific about project details
Lastly, make sure your team members use well-written communication. In a remote team, it isn't always possible to ask quick questions and get an immediate response, so try to preempt those questions by being detailed and specific in the first place.
When you work with an international team, you might experience communication difficulties that come with cultural or language differences. At times, completely different sets of expectations or assumed norms might clash with each other. One way to avoid misunderstanding is to be clear about company policies and goals from the beginning, avoiding the pitfalls of making assumptions about what employees already know. Spell out your expectations—even if, from your perspective, they seem obvious. And don't forget the significant advantages your company benefits from with a broader diversity of thought!
Avoid isolation and loneliness
Social interaction is important, even across time zones
When your team is geographically far apart and working on different schedules, they might quickly begin to feel as if they are working alone. Establishing the clear work-life balance we mentioned earlier will enable employees to spend quality, uninterrupted time with family and friends to combat the loneliness of working from home. However, encouraging some social interaction among your team members is also a good idea.
Synchronous collaboration can be difficult for people who have never met in person and feel disconnected from one another. For team members who are working remotely but in the same time zone, you can suggest or facilitate an in-person office day or meetup every so often to establish some real-time, in-person connection and social interaction. Even if it isn't feasible for your team members to ever see each other in person, you can facilitate camaraderie by introducing a communication channel to talk about casual topics or company successes, encouraging synchronous chats with smaller numbers of people, and request that folks leave their cameras on if possible during necessary company meetings so that the team can get to know each other outside of emails and Google Drive. A good sense of rapport and a sprinkling of office humor can go a long way toward building teamwork and trust.
Try to create an organized online workplace where communication is easy and socializing is encouraged
Remote work across time zones is a modern challenge, but it also comes with an abundance of advantages, like a larger talent pool to hire from, a greater diversity of thought, more flexible working hours, and company productivity around the clock. With a little organization, some useful tools, streamlined communication and clear work-life boundaries, time zone differences can be an asset rather than a liability.