Tips for working across timezones

Ferdia Kenny

If you have ever spent time working with teammates in a very different timezone, you will likely know the struggle of coping with timezone lags. I recently had this experience for the first time and learned some tips that I wanted to share.

For context, I work in a UTC +1 timezone in Europe. I typically start work at 8am and I work until 6pm with a two hour lunch break at 12 noon (I like to take a long lunch to get some exercise in and to break up the day).

For about a month though I was working with folks based in UTC -4 which meant I came online about 5 hours before my colleagues. This was challenging. However, I found the following tips helped a lot.

Maximise your crossover time.

This is probably an obvious one but when you are working with a relatively short window where both you and your colleagues are online, it is important to make sure you are available for all of those hours (or as many as possible). In my case, I typically take lunch from 12 noon until 2pm but my US based colleagues come online at 1pm. To maximise our productive time together, I shifted my lunch an hour earlier. This simple change gave us 5 hours of overlap rather than 4 which is an increase of 25%.

Have a plan for when you’re offline.

It is important to make a plan with your team for the evening / next morning before you finish your crossover hours for the day. Unlike regular working scenarios, when working across timezones you will not be able to sync up first thing in the morning to figure out what to work on next. To address this I would ask my colleagues to leave a Slack update at the end of their day summarising what progress they had made and what still needed to be done. That way I could pick stuff up the next morning while they were still sleeping. We would all sync together when they came online at 1pm UTC +1. Finally, I would clearly state how far I had got with my work before going offline again at 6pm UTC +1.

Set clear boundaries for your work hours.

While it is good to be accommodating (like moving your lunch time around), you should not be too flexible to appease others’ schedules. I would recommend instigating a firm cutoff point in the evening when you will down tools for the day. For me that was 6pm. I would address anything that landed in my inbox after that time the following morning. If you are setting a clear cutoff point, it is important to communicate it clearly with your team so that they know that communication with you outside these set hours will need to be async.

Be mindful of other people’s work hours.

Boundaries are a two way street. Some of your colleagues will probably set cutoff times for themselves too, so try to be empathetic and don’t expect responses from people outside their regular working hours. If you want to be more mindful of other peoples’ hours, try to use less urgent methods of communication.

Less urgent communication.

It is often easy to misconstrue urgency in written messages that arrive outside one’s normal working hours. The tone of written communications (like emails) is hard to detect and can make some things seem more urgent than they really are.

If your primary method of communicating is by email, it can be helpful to schedule your emails to send to your colleagues at a time when you know they will be online. This will prevent their phone getting pings when they are supposed to be disconnected. You can also schedule messages to send on other communication tools like Slack.

If you are not into scheduling your Slack messages to send later, try to open your message with “Future @name” followed by your message. This way, if your colleague does happen to see the message after hours, they know they don’t need to respond right away. Stating in the message that you don’t expect a response until tomorrow can help too.

Scheduling meetings or calls.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but I often found trying to confirm my availability for a meeting in a different timezone to be a challenge because it required some mental arithmetic to work out whether I was free or not. I found Google calendar to be really helpful in this regard. My colleagues would schedule a meeting and I could just show up at the time the calendar says. If it is outside my regular working hours, I could elect not to attend.

Alternatively, for less formal meetings or meetings that are being scheduled over a call, I found it easier to agree to call times when they were scheduled using phrases like “Let’s talk at the top of the hour” or “Let’s talk in 90 minutes” rather than “Let’s talk at 10 o'clock” which would require some more mental arithmetic on my part.

You cannot over communicate.

Finally, you cannot over communicate when you are working with a big timezone difference. If you think your colleagues probably know what you are up to, it’s better to send a message to make sure. If you are uncertain about what to work on, be sure to ask.

I hope these tips help you to work with a global team a little bit more easily!