Best Practice for Effectively Working Across Time Zones

| By TMA World


“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today.  It is already tomorrow in Australia.”
Charles M. Schulz

A few years ago I was making very regular trips to Japan from the USA.  Coming home, I would leave Japan in the evening and arrive home at about the same time (or a little before) I had left Japan;  a time-warping experience made possible by our spinning earth and our International Date Line (IDL) and Time Zone (TZ) conventions.  Now I work virtually, but the IDL and the 40 unique TZs are still very much part of my world.

Digital technologies may be responsible for the ‘death of distance’ (a greatly exaggerated notion), but time’s arrow still flies relentlessly around the world and demands attention, particularly for leaders of global virtual teams.

Here are nine of my top tips for making it work:

Be Attentive to Cultural Holidays
Be proactive and know when your team members might have a public holiday. You can download international public holiday calendars, or you can just visit Wikipedia.

Be Precise
It never hurts to be specific when working across time zones.  Read your meeting instructions from the point of view of others.  What does ‘Next Tuesday’ mean?  It could be tomorrow (if today is Monday) or Tuesday of next week.  Make sure to include the date, the day of the week, the time, and the day of the week. 

Create Shared Ground Rules
Just because we can communicate 24 hours doesn’t mean that we should.  Being respectful of the private time of team members, or the time they need to spend on family responsibilities is a must. 

One company I’m aware of has a policy that you can’t send an email on the weekends, or on weekdays after 7 p.m. (in your own TZ).  They do have some exceptions: (1) a message is extremely urgent (2) you’ve agreed with your team to have a limited period in which messages can be sent at any time (e.g. a couple of weeks before a product launch (3) a team member is traveling, but needs to work closely with people in his or her normal TZ. 
You should also set a ground rule about punctuality – you don’t want team members who are attending a meeting very early or very late in their TZ waiting for others to join.  

Establish a Default TZ
Give the team a ‘map’ of which team members are working in each TZ, but establish a default for scheduling.  Confusion reigns, for example, when a leader schedules a meeting in his or time zone, and then switches to a time in a team member’s TZ in a later email.  Keep it simple and consistent.  You can, of course, write out both times: Meeting Time: Friday May 13, 12 p.m. EST, (9a.m. Pacific).  It is useful to write the day because in fact, you might be meeting with a colleague on a different day/date – depending on your locations.

Keep on top of Daylight Saving Time (DST)
Sometimes my time difference with the UK is four hours and other times five.  In the USA, Arizona does not observe DST (except for the Navajo Nation which spreads over three States).  Hawaii and Puerto Rico also do not observe DST.  Europe and some areas in the Middle East observe DST, but most of Africa and Asia don’t.  New Zealand and parts of southeastern Australia follow DST, as do Paraguay and southern parts of Brazil in South America.  If this is confusing, there are also no set days around the world when the DST takes effect!

Plan to Leverage Overlaps & Time Shifting
Overlaps are those periods when people in different TZs are working simultaneously.  Focus important work that requires live input and coordination across TZs in those overlaps.  Some members of virtual teams adopt time-shifting.  For example, if I am working with colleagues who are 12 hours ahead, I could re-arrange my schedule to work early mornings and late evenings.  Not everyone can do this, but it’s an option for some.

Prioritise Asynchronous Tools
One of the traps virtual teams fall into is over-doing synchronous (real-time) communications.  Ask, is it essential to have all team members ‘live’?  Could some of the work of the meeting be done more productively by using asynchronous tools, e.g. email updates, threaded discussions, written/video blogs, and wikis. 
With social media it is often possible to see who is online and active.  Utilising this capability can lead to a convenient synchronous meeting for both parties. 
Give people the option of attending a way-out-of-normal-hours meeting if their ‘live’ presence isn’t essential. Oftentimes these people will join because they don’t want to feel out-of-the-loop.  Ask yourself if it would more productive to have a synchronous catch-up with some individuals at a different time? 

Stick to a Common Date/Time Format
Dates are not written in the same format worldwide which can cause confusion.  Sometimes the day’s date is placed first, but for others it could the month or year.  Try to agree a standard form.  Also agree on a standard for writing the time.  The time 7:45 is also a quarter to eight, but not everyone may know that language. 
When working internationally, it’s often best to drop a.m. and p.m. and use a 24-hour format, e.g. 8 a.m. becomes 08:00, 1 p.m. becomes 13:00.  Some peoplealso refer to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) which is the new name for Greenwich Mean Time.  UTC+7 refers to a TZ 7 hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time.  UTC-8 would be a TZ 8 hours behind.  What format is used on the team doesn’t matter as long as there is common understanding and agreement.

Utilise Face Time
It is often a more productive use of time if you can see the others.  This way you can better ‘read’ their body language, particularly facial expressions.  Do they look enthusiastic, bored, upset, or confused?  Knowing this information lets you make appropriate adjustments, and be more productive.  Sometimes you can pick up mood signals through voice alone, but not always.  The visual element can add a richer and more relational dimension to the communication, and this helps you avoid misinterpretations and misunderstandings (thereby saving time).  

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