Every week I sign on to a team call with three different salutations: “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening.” My core team of four joins the call via video from the United States, Japan, Mexico, and Montenegro.
I collaborate with a team spread across eight time zones on a daily basis. We’re fully distributed, meaning we’re not tethered to a central office or geographic area. Some of us are digital nomads, spending one- to three-month stints in each location, while others work from home—wherever that may be.
As someone who’s worked in both hybrid and fully remote settings for many years, I’ve picked up some great tips from remote work experts and developed a few myself. Here are proven ways to successfully collaborate across time zones.
Approach Collaboration Asynchronously
You can’t talk about working remotely without mentioning asynchronous communication, or communication that doesn’t expect an immediate response.
Although some companies take a more traditional synchronous approach, requiring their staff to work regular 9-to-5 hours within the same time zone, remote-first companies boast of higher productivity and efficiency that stems from asynchronous communication. GitLab, a web-based DevOps tool with over 1,300 remote employees, for example, shares that asynchronous communication is a significant differentiator when it comes to working remotely. It adds flexibility to its employees’ lives while continuing to support its long-term vision as a global company.
So how do you enact company-wide asynchronous communication?
First, draft a remote playbook or policy that maps out how your team should approach remote work and make it part of your culture. Allow for any employee to contribute and update it. Second, rely on project management tools to organize and keep everyone accountable for their own projects. Third, push leadership to set an example. If your leadership team members answer emails on their own time and rely on project management and documentation over Slack communication for project updates, they’ll pave the way for the rest of the company to follow their lead.
Establish Structured Systems and Processes
The best way to collaborate across time zones is to trust that your team members will all follow the same systems and processes. In your remote work policy, outline how to communicate with one another—what warrants a Slack message versus an email? Make all communication points clear and documented, so that no one is unsure about how to proceed when a colleague is offline due to the time zone differential.
RingCentral, a cloud communication solution made up of remote and colocated employees, prioritizes training new hires on how to approach communication through messaging, email, tools, and video. That way, everyone is on the same page and can collaborate seamlessly, regardless of time zone, from day one.
Investing in a project management tool is a must, as it’s the central access point for all progress updates, to-dos, and company-wide objectives and key results (OKRs).
My team uses Asana, where we organize projects by stages: to do, in progress, in review, and done. We also have an area that showcases how every team is working toward the company OKRs. Every project is public to the entire company, which leaves little question about what each person is working on and what the priorities are. That means there are no road blocks in terms of what to do next, even if teams are spread across time zones.
Publicize the Team’s Whereabouts
I’ve signed on from Argentina, Indonesia, and Switzerland, to name a few locations. But I don’t leave it up to my team members to remember that.
Everyone in the company updates their time zone in their Slack profile. That means at any time, any team member can see their colleagues’ local time. Moreover, encourage employees to deactivate their notifications during off-hours. Not only will that help them maintain a work-life balance, it will show their teammates that they are not available and shouldn’t be expected to reply.
Use Time Zone Abbreviations
“I’ll send that over by EOD Thursday” won’t fly when you’re collaborating across time zones.
Since the end of the day could be different for everyone you collaborate with, both internally and externally, always use time zone abbreviations to clarify meeting times and deadlines—“I’ll send that over by Thursday, January 15, at 5 p.m. (EST).”
To further avoid confusion, send times in the recipient’s time zone. For example, if I’m scheduling a meeting with an external party, I send over a few time slot options in their time zone to avoid the back-and-forth.
Establish a Time for Overlap
When the clock hits 3 p.m. (CEST) from Monday to Wednesday, I prepare for video meetings. My colleagues in the United States do the same, but in the early-morning hours instead.
Our team functions with roughly two hours of overlap at the beginning of the week. We use Thursdays and Fridays for heads-down work, without interruptions or a need to meet virtually.
These overlapping times earlier in the week are crucial to touch base on projects, as well as strengthen our culture. Sometimes we even use these meetings to catch up on personal news, like what we did over the weekend or our future travel plans. Working mainly asynchronously supports work-life balance and maximum productivity, but establishing at least six to eight hours of overlap per week will help support your team’s connection.
Use Time and Date to determine optimal times of overlap for your team and schedule a regular weekly touch-base session to continue building work relationships.
Schedule Virtual Meetings
First and foremost, members of your team should share their calendar with one another and block out offline times to avoid scheduling mishaps.
But team members shouldn’t rely only on calendar blocks—check with your colleagues on what time frames work best. Maybe a coworker has availability in the morning but prefers to use that block as heads-down time since that’s when they’re most productive.
If your team’s time zones are quite spread out—Boston and Auckland, for instance—regularly rotate schedules so that everyone has a chance to meet at opportune times. Since I currently work from Europe, my meetings can span from 4 to 8 p.m. (CEST). To relieve me from the constant burden of late-evening calls, we’ll change up the meeting times every couple of months so I can connect synchronously during my regular business hours too.
It’s important to have a way to recap meetings that teammates miss. Zapier, a global remote company, records videoconference calls to allow those who couldn’t attend to add input. Consider recording your calls, assigning a notetaker, and having a full-fledged meeting agenda and recap available for those who need to reference what transpired.
Opt for Videoconferencing
Seeing your colleagues over video, instead of just hearing them over audio, personalizes conversations regardless of geographic location.
Encourage your team members to turn on their cameras when they’re conferencing in. Video calls not only help reduce feelings of loneliness but promote a sense of connection even when colleagues are thousands of miles away.
This isn’t to say that you should push for it too hard. Sometimes employees simply need to be off video. Imagine a new parent rocking or feeding their newborn, or a studio apartment dweller who doesn’t want the group to be able to see their partner’s fitness routine going on behind them. Share the importance of having the camera on when it’s possible, but don’t make it mandatory.
And when the camera and audio are on, accept that interruptions and background noise will sometimes happen. That’s just a reality of working remotely.
There’s one startup that’s taking the way teams use video to communicate asynchronously to a new level. PingPong, a video-chat app used for teams spanning time zones, developed an alternate to synchronous meetings that allows team members to record a video of themselves in their own time to share across their team. And PingPong isn’t alone. New products are emerging to capitalize on the widely held forecast that remote work isn’t going anywhere postpandemic.
Be Patient and Empathetic
Collaborating across time zones takes a conscious effort and requires trial and error. Be flexible and mindful of everyone’s whereabouts, and structure your approach to communication and collaboration around that.
Use these tips as a guideline, but, more important, consider feedback from every one of your employees, regardless of rank, and make changes if processes simply don’t work. Remote teams can thrive for many reasons while collaborating across time zones, but mainly they succeed by knowing where to look when they have a question and by having uninterrupted heads-down time.
With collaboration systems and procedures in place, your team will thrive too.