Time Zone Trouble

I recently received an email asking for a bit of advice on time zone trouble. The email went along the lines of:

I’m working for a company where we have an office in the UK, and an office in California. These have an 8 hour time difference. The team in the UK is a small team that works semi-autonomously, but it requires better communication with the US head office than we currently have. I’m looking for help with strategies on getting people communicating better with a large time difference. Any advice, gratefully received.

This is a tricky one. On this blog and in the articles I’ve written I’ve mentioned lots of synchronous forms of communication (telephony, VOIP, virtual meetings, chat, Twitter etc.) but all of these rely on people being around at the same time to be effective. An 8 hour lag makes for a fairly stilted conversation…

However globalisation of work is happening more and more and small amounts of time difference can be over come as Amanda Hill’s explained in her recent guest blog post.

The time difference between the UK and Eastern Canada can occasionally be problematic. It works fine for me, as I am part-time on Names and usually work on that in the morning, when UK folk are putting in their afternoon’s work. Then I can work on the Dundee module (or my garden) in my afternoon. I find that Twitter really helps in keeping connected with my various professional communities.

timezonePhoto by wijkerslooth. One possibility is to use the time zones to an organisation’s advantage. This would mean ones work place enabling staff to work around the clock (i.e. making sure the office is open and accessible late at night). Teams could also look at the order of certain tasks – tasks that require the other team’s input are carried out later in the day. Maybe some tasks or chats could even be carried out in employees homes. Staff could work later from home one day and come into the office later the next day. Flexible working means that there could be some time zone overlap (make sure you pay your team back though for their extra hours!) As long as the schedules are rotated and workers don’t always have to work out-of-hours this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The key is that everyone is clear on what the situation is, knows what time it is in the other office and who it is OK to call. Otherwise there might be some very cross employees taking part in conference calls in the pyjamas! One idea might be to schedule a call every day at the end of the UK day and the beginning of the US day.

Without being online at the same time teams will be restricted to asynchronous communication. This means that quite a lot of work must be carried out early to allow the other team enough time to reflect on it/use it. What you don’t want to do is waste precious time in a difficult to schedule meeting with everyone catching up on documentation.

Technology wise a few ideas might be:

  • Use a time zone software like timeanddate.com.
  • Use something that allows conversation threads (like the Facebook threads) as well as email.
  • If you want to use Twitter make sure you agree on an appropriate hashtag for filtering so you can pick up tweets later on.
  • Try a project blog so everyone is kept up to date with the current status of work. Shared project management tools can also help and Wikis for collaboration on documents.
  • Let the team to have mobile email devices.
  • Use an organisational Intranet.
  • Try making short videos to send over. This will allow the teams to get to know each other better and clarify things that can’t be explained in an email.
  • Use meeting planner software like Whenisgood Meetingmade, – more ideas in this Web Work Daily article entitled How to Plan Virtual Meetings With a Global Teleworking Team.

Thanks to Twitter people for help with some of these ideas. Any more suggestions?

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