As remote work becomes normalized, distributed teams often find themselves working across time zones. As a result, colleagues can be anywhere from a few hours apart to almost an entire day apart.
When this happens, getting everyone on the same page, coordinating work, seamlessly collaborating and staying connected can be difficult. It takes some extra forethought to maintain agility, cohesion and effectiveness.
As a distributed team, we know a thing or two about working across different time zones. That's why we're taking some time to share some best practices for working across time zones.
The challenges of collaborating across time zones
Real-time communication, scheduling and meetings can be complicated for distributed teams working hours apart. Routine tasks take more forethought. Time differences can result in work delays, and scheduled appointments and meetings can fall through the cracks.
Simply reaching out to confirm a small detail with a colleague can be difficult if that person is 16 hours ahead. And things that went without saying – like what 10 AM means – must now be explicitly stated. This can turn remote work into complete chaos. But it doesn't have to.
The 11 best practices for working across time zones
If you're on a widely distributed team, here are a few new best practices for working across time zones.
1. Share schedules (and set some boundaries)
One standard schedule isn't suitable for distributed teams working across time zones. To avoid chaos, confusion and burnout, remote teams need to establish new schedules that work for everyone.
Take time to discuss scheduling preferences, personal boundaries, time limitations and what has to be respected. (E.g., certain team members might be fine with working late into the night on most days but want their Fridays a little more normal. Others might be fine with 3 AM meetings, except for Monday morning or days after local holidays. Some team members might be up for working at night but unable to connect in the morning or early evening, etc.).
Make this information freely available to the remote team. Let everyone know what their colleagues' schedules, preferences and boundaries are. It's best if team members can access this information quickly and easily. To do that, you can block out scheduling availabilities with team planning tools and calendars.
2. Prioritize asynchronous conversations
Embrace asynchronous communication. Async communication is when someone sends or leaves a message to be read or reviewed later. Examples include:
- Voice notes
- Video comments
- And more
Asynchronous communication is perfect for remote teams – especially those working across time zones, because colleagues working on different schedules won't always be available to chat or talk at the same time. It's ideal for sharing tidbits of information, like reviews, updates, and notes, and providing more detail. It can even be used to dialogue back and forth.
Prioritizing asynchronous channels will streamline communication, unify remote work and help team members remain in a good working flow.
3. Overhaul the meetings
Meetings are essential for remote teams. But working across time zones that are far apart can make these difficult. Some team members may have to show up outside business hours, late into the night or extra early.
That may be fine occasionally, but doing so repeatedly can become a personal hardship, diminish the quality of life and erode the work-life balance.
Distributed remote teams must be more flexible and accommodating to ensure things stay fair for everyone. Some ways to do this include:
- Rotate the meeting times so that some team members aren't consistently inconvenienced.
- Consider whether the meeting is actually necessary
- Rethink who has to be there
- Record the meeting so it can be rewatched
- Take notes to sum things up for colleagues who couldn't make it
4. Establish systems and processes
Set a remote work policy with clear systems, processes and guidelines for working and collaborating as a team. This policy should include which tools, channels and resources to use and use cases for doing so. In addition, it should include processes and standard working practices to follow.
Make this as granular and detailed as possible. For example, a policy can outline which communication tool to use along with which integrations and notification settings to utilize. This policy should be in writing, available to all team members and frequently updated.
5. Use time zones when talking about the time
Include the time zone when referencing times. For example, instead of mentioning a potential meeting at 10 AM, say 10 AM EST or 10 AM PST. This is the only way for global teams to understand exactly what time is being discussed. Without it, any mentions of time will be a complete guessing game.
Some large or global teams may even want to use a standard zoning reference, such as GMT or UTC. In this case, 10 AM EST becomes 10 AM EST GMT-5 or 3 PM UTC. 10 AM PST becomes 10 AM PST GMT-8 or 6 PM UTC.
Using universal time references might look a little more complicated, but it can be helpful for remote teams working in multiple zones. This may take time to get used to, but integrating it can help global teams stay on the same page and avoid numerous miscommunications and missed meetings.
6. Find the overlap time
Overlap time refers to times when two or more time zones intersect. Overlapping times that fall within normal or acceptable working hours are ideal for global teamwork.
Here's how that could work for a distributed global team with members in New York City, Buenos Aires, London and Sydney. NYC is on GMT-5 and has the earliest time, Buenos Aires is GMT-3, London is GMT, and Sydney is GMT+11.
At 2 PM in NYC, it's 4 PM in Buenos Aires, 7 PM in London, and 6 AM the next day in Sydney. This might be perfect for a quick meeting or catchup session if the Brits are willing to stay late and the Australians are willing to show up early.
Leveraging overlap hours makes it much easier to work together within normal times. Teams can use it to find long blocks of time to collaborate, see the best time for a quick call or build entire schedules around it. Even widely distributed teams will have a few intersecting hours where they can connect.
Here are two time zone comparison tools to figure this out for you. Overlap by Moleskine Studio is a free app for iPhone, iPad and Mac. World Time Buddy is a free visual time zone comparison site.
7. Make sure the expectations are fair for everyone
Don't consistently expect certain remote workers to work at odd hours or accommodate the team. That's just not fair and can lead to lowered morale. Instead, try to keep things balanced. If someone has to show up at 2 AM or 8 PM to connect, make sure to switch things around at some point.
On the other hand, watch out for colleagues who can't make those time sacrifices due to personal reasons. For example, a team member with a sick spouse or new baby at home might need a period where they can work normal hours.
Talk things out as a group and with individual workers. See who can be flexible and who needs a break. And consider offering rewards or bonuses in exchange for the inconvenience.
8. Make patience and empathy a part of the company culture
Working remotely and collaborating across time zones has its challenges. Distributed team members need a good dose of emotional intelligence to maintain cohesiveness, productivity and performance levels.
Certain traits, like empathy, are consistently found in high-performing teams. Workplace empathy is positively related to job performance.
The most effective leaders and collaborators are masters of soft skills. They understand how to practice patience when things go wrong. They're tuned in, compassionate and caring to those around them. They're effective communicators, even under pressure.
These traits aren't optional for remote teams. Work to build a trusting and considerate culture that values patience, empathy, compassion and care. This may require offering training sessions or workshops on emotional intelligence, emotional resilience and people-centered soft skills.
9. Be flexible
Working across time zones goes much smoother when distributed teams are flexible with their time. There are endless ways to be flexible and customize a schedule. For example, team members can:
- Start earlier
- End later
- Split up workdays
- Work on Saturdays and then take Monday off
Remote work is built for a flexible lifestyle. However, you can't force or pressure anyone to work outside the hours they signed up for or cause an undue burden. You want to ensure you always respect everyone's personal life, maintain healthy boundaries and support a good work-life balance.
10. Be mindful of everyone's time zone
Teams working across time zones must be aware of everyone else's local time – and practice respect for distributed colleagues' off hours. In other words, not everything has to happen spontaneously or right away.
This might take a little getting used to, but it's worth double-checking time zones before sending an email, inviting a colleague to a meeting or calling someone up. A little mindfulness will help everyone maintain normal working hours and be able to properly disconnect when their workdays are over.
It might be helpful to add time zones to personal profiles or contact information for easy reference. There are quite a few tools around that can help team members double-check time zones, make time zone conversions and see everyone's local time at a glance.
Check out Time Zone Converter, World Time Buddy, World Time Zone, World Chat Clock, 24timezones and Every Time Zone.
11. Use a shared calendar
Shared calendars should be a staple tool for distributed teams. It's the perfect way to keep everyone on the same page. Team supervisors can block out appropriate meeting times during overlapping business hours to enable enhanced independent teamwide collaboration across time zones.
Several shared calendar tools are available now. The best ones for remote teams offer cross-platform functionality, automatic syncing, integrated collaboration features, shareable scheduling links and ease of use. Options to consider include Calendly, Teamup, Google Calendar and Toggl.
Working across time zones doesn't have to be hard
Collaborating across time zones might not be intuitive. But it isn't as difficult as it may seem. At one point or another, everyone went through a learning curve to get used to the daily norms and routines of working life. Working with a distributed team simply means adapting to a few new ones. These 11 best practices for working across time zones can help your distributed team get started.
At Outstaffer, we help you hire, onboard and manage your global employees – compliantly. With solutions like Managed Devices, VR Workplaces, Workforce Monitoring and more, we make it easy for your distributed team members to thrive.
Ready to bring a global team together? Get started with Outstaffer today.