Help! My colleagues are in different time zones


Technology never sleeps – and if we’re not careful, so can people working across different time zones. Whilst tech is a great enabler for dispersed teams, it can be a source of pressure and friction. The human element is sometimes missing and there are cultural issues to consider too. These 8 tips aim to help, based on my own experience and that of participants in Zoomly workshops, particularly ‘Manage upwards’ and ‘Work well in a team’.

1.Have a holiday calendar

Each year, create a team calendar with all the public holidays for the countries involved. Add notifications at least two weeks out so that no-one can say they didn’t know it was Chinese New Year, Eid, Diwali, etc. Add team members’ personal leave too.

2. Talk face to (virtual) face, often

Email can be a great tool – if used wisely. What it’s not great for is exchanges between colleagues on different continents about topics that may be sensitive or complex. Make the most of live conversations via video link. Hangouts and Zoom calls are great for a weekly stand-up team meeting (standing up meetings, even on a call, encourage us to be brief and to the point). Recording the meetings enables everyone to play back at their own speed. If some territories have tech limitations that impact video, schedule a live chat via a tool such as Slack, Hangouts Chat or Microsoft Teams. Much more productive than endless email chains.

3. Agree core hours

Here in London, there’s a late-morning pinch point when Eastern USA is getting going – and Delhi is getting ready to go home. Other countries have similar squeezes. Agree with team members when you’ll have overlap time, to bring colleagues up to date and hand over shared tasks. If a project team can agree core hours when someone with decision-making authority can be available it can make a big difference to productivity.

4. Get to know each other

If you have tech that allows you to create a profile, it’s a great way to build relationships within a dispersed team. What’s your favourite film, music, food? When’s your birthday? And make sure your profile includes your time zone.

5. Observe and learn cultural norms

We’ve all heard the stereotypical views of some nationalities – German punctuality vs a more laid-back Latin ‘mañana’ approach to deadlines, for example – and there may be a grain of truth in them. Be aware of your biases and assumptions and pay close attention to what people actually do and say – and how they say it. Look for unspoken codes of behaviour, such as levels of eye contact.  Different cultures can have very different views of how much eye contact is appropriate. Same can apply for laughter; it can signal mirth or suggest discomfort and embarrassment. Small talk is a skill in some cultures, whereas others want to cut to the chase. Observe your colleagues’ behaviour and learn. Focus on what works well and learn from what doesn’t.

6. Build shared resources

Whether it’s a checklist for hosting a video call, a guide to file security protocols, or a video demo of how to use a tech tool, encourage everyone to contribute resources that help team members work together more effectively – without having to wake anyone up.

7. Use email wisely

Email can be a tricky medium when we can’t see or hear the author; words alone can be misunderstood. Clarity is essential, with next steps and due dates. So far, so common sense – but if email is the communication medium of choice in a dispersed team, it may help to have some ground rules. If you’re not sure how what you’ve written will land with your recipient, schedule a chat or call. Use scheduled sending so that your colleague in Singapore isn’t woken up by a notification in the middle of the night. Outside of working hours disable emails to your work address. Log off and Use your OOO message to advise colleagues when you will be back online.

8. Check the time

This may sound obvious common sense – but all too often isn’t common practice. When your colleagues are in multiple time zones you need to be aware of what time it is, not just in one other place – but several.  Get the habit of thinking in more time zones than your own.

Got any great ideas for dispersed teams? Please add a comment if you’ve got a suggestion.

You may find this post useful: ‘Making remote teamwork…work’


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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