8 Tips for Teaming Across Time Zones

Keep your small business team connected, even if they’re miles apart.
January 17, 2012

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Today’s small businesses work and compete on a global stage. So the complexity of organizing your team for meetings and conference calls can make your mistakes feel universal, too. Perhaps you’ve felt the embarrassment of phoning into an online meeting only to hear everyone saying “’bye” just as you connected. So much for the productive, interconnected digital age.

Minor mishaps may embarrass, but they can amplify into soured relationships and lost business as our meetings across continents, languages and cultures. Follow these eight ideas to avoid the pitfalls of meeting across time zones and cultures.

1. Be precise about date and time zone

Sounds obvious, but omitting date and zone detail is a common error. Setting a conference call for “9 a.m.” doesn’t fly. Stateside, if you regularly meet with the same crowd, always include the time standard—and label it (9 a.m. Eastern, for example). For international work, it may be handier to state the time in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and allow each participant to convert to his or her local standard. (For example, 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time is 14:00 UTC.) When meeting with people who are new at working across time zones, help bring them up to speed by communicating the zone clearly: “We’re meeting at 11 a.m. Eastern—that’s 8 a.m. Pacific.” Memorize the time zone differentials for people you work with most often.

Using software to help you set meetings and times can eliminate mix-ups. For example, the Time Zone Event Planner allows you to select multiple geographic locations and get the correct zone and time across them. The World Clock allows you to search cities to check the time and date. Most meeting-scheduler software automatically accounts for time differences.

2. Be considerate of time

You like to start your day by meeting at 8 a.m. Does that mean it’s fair to expect your cross-continent staff to get to the meeting at 5 a.m.? Don’t force people to attend meetings that aren’t specifically relevant to them—especially when the time difference forces them to attend at off-hours.

3. Avoid too many conference calls with off-shift people.

Conference calls enable everyone to hear the same information at the same time. Trouble is, such calls can be difficult to coordinate with larger teams. And regularly pulling in off-shift people can damage morale and split teams into “us and them.”

Consider using instant messenger, chat and Skype as alternatives. When feasible and allowed by company standards, such systems can enable low-cost, on-the-fly solutions, eliminating confusion and chaos. And you can easily save or record conversations for those not in attendance.

4. Rotate suffering

Working across time zones, someone always suffers—so share the pain. If the team meets regularly at a difficult time, clearly acknowledge the inconvenience some face, thank them for their efforts, and then rotate the suffering across the group, regardless of who’s most powerful or in the majority. People respond to challenges better when they know you understand and are attempting to be fair. And if your entire local team needs to show up at 3 a.m. to see what the other side routinely must deal with, they’ll prove more empathetic to their distant teammates.

5. Document work, decisions, and plans clearly and simply 

When communicating across time zones (and cultures), simplify your communications—especially when people 13 hours away may wind up implementing the plans another group has developed. Deliver simple descriptions, use bulleted lists and remove colorful details. Remind those you work with to ask for clarification as needed.

6. Elongate your planning window

Simple plans and schedules that work for onsite, close-knit groups grow more complicated as teams disperse. If you are accustomed to developing solutions and forecasting new work every four or five days, you’ll need to moderately extend your planning when involving workers from multiple consecutive zones, and even more dramatically when crossing oceans, cultures and languages. First, it’s simply harder to coordinate meetings. Beyond that, in-person communication allows for far more unspoken information, an intrinsic efficiency, than distance communication, giving cross-zone teams a natural disadvantage.

Even if your international team members are fluent in English, they won’t be fluent in the unspoken practices and knowledge the local team shares. It takes time for you to express what you need clearly, and to ascertain that the nonlocal team really gets it. So, add time for logistics and the communications challenges; a four- or five-day window may double or triple.

7. Attend to cultural differences

Communicating across times zones often means that differences extend beyond schedules. For example, workers in some cultures are not as assertive as American workers. The result can be that workers 10 hours away won’t explain their confusion, or they won’t tell you when your expectations are out of line. Holidays, family norms and cultural expectations around acceptable work hours vary dramatically. Due to the various ways people commute, moving a meeting even by an hour may require some team members to arrive several hours earlier.

8. Coordinate staff shifts with key time zones and suppliers

If your business relies on distance sales, you must ensure staff is available when customers are ready to buy, day or night. Or, if you rely on a critical subunit or supplier, you may have to coordinate and dedicate part of your team to the most critical component of the supply chain. This may mean setting up unusual shift schedules and finding employees willing to work them. As with all things global, the key is flexibility.

Vincent Hyman is a St. Paul, Minnesota–based writer and editor.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FedEx.

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