Time zones are tricky. It's easy enough to understand time zones where you live, but if you're working in a remote team spread across the world, it gets harder to remember what time it is for your team members.
Attempts to reinvent time zones to make them easier for everyone have failed, we just can't come to a universal agreement.
In this article, you'll learn about the benefits and challenges of working across time zones, as well as the best practices you need to follow.
Benefits of working across time zones
Access to a global talent pool
Traditionally companies have relegated themselves to hiring people who live within commuting distance of their offices or at most, the same time zone.
When you don't need to consider time zones, you can attract and hire the best talent regardless of location. This is a massive benefit, even if you are located in a hub like San Francisco or New York, chances are the best person for the job doesn't live within commuting distance of your office.
More diverse and inclusive workplace
By embracing different time zones, you can build a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Research from McKinsey found that ethnically and racially diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers by 36% when it comes to financial metrics.
Diverse teams made up of remote team members from around the world, especially in management positions, escape local echo chambers and build truly world-class products.
Increased productivity driven by deep work
Remote companies that embrace multiple time zones must rely on asynchronous communication. For background, async communication happens when information is exchanged without the expectation of an immediate response.
Async communication allows people to process the information on their own time and respond at their own convenience, reducing the number of interruptions people receive.
Fewer interruptions leads to more deep work, which can dramatically increase productivity. Deep work, a term coined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This distraction-free concentration pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit and creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate in our world of instant satisfaction.
Improved operations and documentation
When everyone lives in different time zones, writing, planning, and documentation tend to become the default behavior for remote employees. This means people who were offline can dive into documentation to catch up, rather than having to wait for answers.
This leads to a better run company, less stress, and higher quality work. Not to mention that if all time zones are covered, then the company can serve its customers 24/7 without the need for late-night shifts.
But the biggest benefit might be how much it cuts off onboarding new employees who can simply read the archives and get up to speed on key decisions, culture, and work styles.
Challenges of working across time zones
While operating with time zone differences has its benefits, it's also challenging. Particularly if you don't introduce new processes to manage a truly global team.
Collaboration and communication difficulties
The actual time difference between co-workers is a significant barrier to effective real-time communication. If remote employees don't have overlap in work hours, there can be a lag between a question being asked and answered. This is why you must rely on asynchronous communication.
This issue can be compounded when you employ a diverse team who come from different locations and cultural backgrounds, many of whom may be communicating in their second (or third) language.
Remote collaboration is difficult and productivity can halt if digital tools fail. Read our guide on remote collaboration to learn how to overcome these challenges.
Narrow meeting windows
This is probably the most obvious challenge of working across multiple time zones, and rightfully so. It can get overwhelming trying to set up a time that works for the entire team.
The only way it can work is if you keep team meetings to a minimum, record them for those that can't attend, and make attendance optional. If you really do need to have everyone there, try to pick a time that works for most people and then ask the remaining few if they can attend. Then the next time you organize a meeting, share the burden and make it easy for them and harder for everyone else.
Working in different time zones can be lonely. Even the most introverted remote workers need social interaction, humans just aren't designed for solitude.
Working in an office (or with the same work hours) is filled with impromptu moments that break up your day, many of which are unwanted distractions. Other moments, like grabbing lunch with colleagues, are a great way to break up the day.
Remind remote team members that social interaction doesn't have to come from co-workers or consider offering a co-working space stipend as a remote employee benefit.
Best practices for working across time zones
Working in a global team spread across time zones means embracing a remote-first, not a remote-friendly, culture. You can't just be aware of time zones, you need to construct a company where time zones are at the core of every internal operation.
Encourage work-life balance
When it comes to working remotely with teams across different time zones, the most important thing is to be mindful, empathetic, and respectful.
If employees don't have clear work boundaries, they risk burning out, which negatively affects their own and their team's performance.
This is why you must allow team members to create healthy work-life boundaries by:
- Encouraging employees to share their preferred work hours: One of the perks of working from home is the ability to create your own work schedule. Some people prefer to work early mornings while others prefer to work late at night after the kids have gone to sleep. You may find some people even like to split their workday into two chunks. Whatever they choose, it's important to respect their do-not-disturb hours and encourage them to set working hours in Google Calendar.
- Updating your time zone in Slack: The bigger your team, the harder it is to keep track of everyone's local time zone. This is compounded if you have a mix of people working from home and digital nomads who travel while working. Thankfully, people can set their time zone in Slack.
- Turning off notifications outside of work hours: It's easy to reply to one message to unblock a colleague, but it's just as easy for one message to spiral into ten then twenty, and the next thing you know you're working again. Make it easy to unplug by turning off notifications.
Always ask: is this meeting necessary?
In today's work culture, spending your entire day in meetings is common. But it doesn't have to be that way and it can't if you plan to work in a global team.
Whenever you find yourself wanting to call a meeting, ask yourself: Is it absolutely necessary to communicate in real-time?
If the answer is no, then don't schedule a meeting.
The need to be online at specific hours on specific days means people don't have control over the structure of their workdays, and never-ending meetings can force people to work longer hours to get work done.
Meetings, and other forms of synchronous communication, have their place. They provide more opportunities for building trust, real-time problem-solving, and creating natural breaks in your day, but they also lead to constant interruptions, attention residue, poor documentation, less freedom for employees, and reduced ability to hire talent in different locations.
If a meeting is necessary, make attendance optional so you're not asking teammates to stay up late to get up early. If it's recurring and unavoidable (and it often will be), try to schedule meeting times so that the burden is shared across the team rather than by the same people each week.
It's crucial that you adopt a remote-first mindset, document decisions clearly and concisely for people who are unable to attend, and record the meeting. Ideally, you'll write a memo before each meeting to help attendees know what to expect and how to prepare. You'll be surprised how many meetings aren't needed if you do this.
Overcommunicate and assume good intent
Teams that work across multiple time zones can't rely on real-time communication. There's no room to ask clarifying questions and you don't have the luxury of reading a person's facial expressions or tone of voice. Well-written documentation is a requirement.
If you are providing information, invest the additional time upfront to answer any questions or solve any issues you think the person may have ahead of time. For example, always check document sharing settings.
Ideally, your company will set up Google Drive, Dropbox, or whatever file-sharing system you use so files are automatically accessible to the entire company. If not, make sure you grant access to people ahead of time. If they can't access the file, they'll have to wait for you to be online again. This can lead to increased frustration and lower productivity.
If you are receiving information, always assume the person has good intent. It's easy to come across as terse or annoyed over text.
Default to asynchronous communication
The best way to be mindful of different time zones is to disregard time entirely and rely on asynchronous communication. By setting a clear expectation that communication won't happen in real-time, you can take the pressure of people in different time zones to be "on-call".
Start by culling synchronous communication like daily stand-ups and instead move toward written status updates. You'll be amazed by how much can be replaced by a written memo or message.
Async communication provides a number of benefits beyond support for multiple time zones including:
- Increased productivity: Async reduces interruptions and frees up time to focus on deep work.
- Improved employee engagement: Deep work not only leads to better company outcomes, but it also creates profound satisfaction for team members by helping them find flow. This in turn leads to more engaged employees.
- Lower stress levels and burnout: Async workplaces don't need to set hours and employees have control over their workdays, which leads to happier, healthier, and more productive employees.
- Higher quality communication: Asynchronous work reduces the pressure to answer immediately, so communication tends to be of higher quality.
- Easier to be honest: It's easier to give honest feedback when working asynchronously due to the online disinhibition effect. While this can have its downsides, the honest feedback it promotes is worth the trade-off. Always assume positive intent.
- Better planning: When you can't expect a message back in minutes, people learn how to manage their workloads better and plan ahead. This leads to a more well-run company, less stress, and higher quality work.
- Documentation by default: When communication relies on writing, meetings and important information is documented by default, particularly if you rely on an employee handbook or public documents over email.
- Increased transparency: Like being documented by default, increased transparency improves decision-making as everyone can make decisions based on access to the same information.
- Improved inclusivity: Asynchronous work provides flexibility to people who need different things to work and collaborate successfully.
Create an employee handbook
A great way to introduce a more async, documentation culture is to build an employee handbook. An employee handbook is a written document that outlines the company's mission, culture, core values, policies, procedures, teams, best practices, and any other information employees need to do their work.
GitLab's handbook is one of the most famous (and best executed) examples of how to build a fantastic employee manual and distributed workplace culture. At 2,200+ pages, it's thorough, transparent, even allowing people who don't work at GitLab to contribute.
Clear documentation helps people more toward a more async culture because they can answer their own questions and work more independently without having to wait for answers.
This is foundational to working in a distributed team spread across time zones where quick check-ins aren't feasible.
Hire a Head of Remote
The Head of Remote position sits on the organization's leadership team and is responsible for building and maintaining remote company culture and employee experience. It was first suggested by Andreas Klinger, CTO at On Deck, and pioneered by GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij and Darren Murph.
Depending on the organization, this could include managing remote operations, partnering with IT to develop cybersecurity measures, facilitating strong interpersonal connections between remote employees, or teaching staff how to move toward a culture that is time zone agnostic.
Not every Head of Remote role is the same, but there are two primary types:
- Internal advocates: Primarily responsible for ensuring an equal employee experience across the organization regardless of where employees live. This type of role is typically aligned with business operations or human resources.
- External advocates: Primarily responsible for telling the story of remote work at the organization to the world. This position primarily relates to marketing and public relations, helping attract top talent, and supporting the company's position as remote-first or remote-friendly.
Many Heads of Remote will spend time in both worlds, improving the internal experience while advocating for remote-first beyond the organization.
While it may seem overkill to hire a person solely dedicated to this, it's a mistake to think that you can simply take what was working in the office. or in overlapping time zones, and copy and paste it onto a truly distributed team.
Leverage tools to help with time zone management
While you may get good at guessing, tools can help you choose the right time, every time. This is particularly important if you have teammates in countries that have daylight savings time. Some tools we can recommend are:
- Calendly: If you're booking calls with customers who aren't on your team, use an app like Calendly to prevent people from booking sessions with you outside of work hours. Calendly can automatically show available teem times in their local time zone, so there's no chance of confusion.
- Every Time Zone: This visual time zone converter makes it simple to find the exact time difference between locations.
- Google: Search for the time in the city/country you're trying to coordinate with.
- Google Calendar: You can see the time in other countries by adding world clocks to your calendar. This makes it easier to organize times with team members across the globe.
- Slack: Click on a teammate's name and you'll be automatically shown their local time, which is a great thing to check before you message them!
- World Clock Meeting Planner: Choose the cities where everyone lives and the date for your meeting and it'll show in green, yellow, and red the times that are best, not too bad, and terrible for everyone.
Encourage flexible working hours
Flexible workers hours have been proven to reduce burnout, stress levels, and psychological distress while increasing job satisfaction. They can also unlock more productivity by allowing team members to work when they're most productive whether that be in the morning, afternoon, night, or a mix.
While it may seem strange to let people work at all times of the day, you're already going to be doing that indirectly by working across time zones.
Companies successfully working across time zones
Building an asynchronous culture can seem intimidating but you'll need to if you plan to work across time zones. A byproduct of async is increased autonomy. When you can't rely on synchronous communication, you need to be able to continue working when help could be a day or two away.
Getting used to higher autonomy and async communication can be challenging, but there are more and more companies doing it–and doing it well. Here are a few examples. Check out our post on 100+ fully remote companies for more examples.
GitLab might be the world's largest fully distributed company with 1,400+ remote workers in 65+ countries. More than 30 million users and 100,000 organizations from startups to global enterprise organizations use GitLab to deliver great software at new speeds.
They're proudly a remote-first company and took full advantage of remote collaboration long before coronavirus. They’re also huge advocates of remote and asynchronous work and recognized early that when implemented effectively, remote collaboration is the key to innovation in the competitive software development landscape.
They even wrote a 2,200+ page handbook on it.
Help Scout is a popular customer support email and live chat platform on a mission to “empower businesses with tools that serve people in the most human, helpful way.”
Founded in 2011, Help Scout has been a fully remote company from day 1 and is powering 12,000+ teams in 140+ countries. Their 150+ distributed team is spread across 80+ cities worldwide.
One of the best things about Help Scout is that they publish how they work and their post on how to build a globally remote team that really works is a great example.
The post outlines how to build an effective time zone agnostic team as a company leader, people manager, colleague, and as a geographically remote person.
Zapier are on a mission to make automation easy and accessible to everyone at work. With over 400 remote employees spread across 30 countries, Zapier is one of the largest fully remote companies. They know what they’re doing and write great guides on how to get the most out of remote work.
According to Wade Foster, co-founder, and CEO of Zapier, it comes down to three things:
- Team: The most important ingredient is the team. Not everyone wants to work in a remote environment and managing remote teams is a skill that has to be learned. Wade recommends hiring doers, hiring people you can trust, trusting the people you hire, hiring people who can write, and hiring people who are ok without a social workplace.
- Tools: Remote teams need the right tools to make sure everyone stays on the same page and can continue to execute without a physical person standing next to them. Wade recommends Slack, GitHub, 1Password, Coda, Zoom, HelloSign, and Help Scout.
- Process: The third ingredient is process. Good processes let you get work done in the absence of all else by providing structure and direction to get things done. A few processes that are important to Zapier are: Everyone doing support, a culture of shipping, weekly hangouts, pair buddies, weekly 1:1s, a culture of accountability, building culture in person, and automating anything that can be automated.
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