At this point in the remote work revolution, as more and more people have tapped into the potential of work-from-anywhere models, we’ve woken up to some things. Maybe you’d be happier in rural Idaho than a pricey metropolis. And, as smart companies have learned, great talent lives can be found in places where they may not have a physical presence. Not being limited by geography changed the way we worked entirely—even with regards to winning potential clients in countries not previously even considered.
This aspect of decentralized work highlighted the unique challenge of working with people whose sunrises might be your sunsets. Before, you could lean over to your desk mate to ask a question. Now that they’ve moved across the country, you’ll have to wait until they clock in to get a response, and you might have to book a meeting in their calendar to do it.
For Eva O’Brian, who works at a full-service consulting agency for public services based out of London, learning to communicate across time zones became an immediate priority. Her team was beginning a project that included clients across Northern, Central, Eastern, and Western Europe, with the main stakeholders in New York. “We were working with two to three time zones at any given time,” she says. “All of it was new.”
In the years since that project began from home, O’Brian, and many other remote-first organizations are taking action—using new tools, refining communication, and front-loading with preparation—to ensure there remains some cohesion no matter what continent or culture their employees are coming from.
Some barriers to access have been removed, and we’re able to engage people who didn’t have the time or ability before
Communicate with crystal clarity
If some members of your team or your clients are still asleep as you’re getting ready to wrap up your day, good communication can be your biggest asset—but only if the communication is clear.
Rather than have your colleagues do time-zone math every time there’s a deadline, clarify what “end of day” really means. If a team member is waiting to review content being created on another coast, managers should consider shifting deadlines that ensure everyone’s time is used effectively.
On that note, it’s never been more important for leaders to put themselves in the shoes of employees who live elsewhere; coming from a place of empathy about these kinds of topics can go a long way. “It’s also about simply recognizing that my end of day isn’t the same as everyone’s,” says O’Brian. “I clarify time zones in everything I do: I need this at 3pm this time, which is 4pm. this time, which is 5pm this time.”
In any given team, there can be multiple cultural backgrounds and perspectives—which could mean that phrases that feel common to you aren’t so common for everyone else and vice-versa. It’s not fair to expect that a phrase like midday means the same for everyone. That kind of thinking also led O’Brian to consider her written communication more carefully. “I think a lot more now about speaking slowly, considering what I’m saying, and demystifying jargon,” she says. Asking for clarity when needed is also key. For those who feel less than fluent in their given workplace’s vernacular, don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications, or request a relevant industry glossary from your employer to ensure everyone is speaking the same language.
Providing a visual example along with a spoken presentation also works as another way to honor individual experiences. It makes the information easier to digest for anyone watching it in their own time—including visual learners, those who need to pause and process information, or people who want to take notes from a slide deck.
Let tools help you collaborate
When it comes to accommodating people living in vastly different places, leaning on technology can take a lot of stress and guesswork out of the equation. Ensuring some overlap is definitely another crucial step to building your cross-time zone plan. As much as autonomous work can be productive, sometimes it’s just more efficient to gather and talk it out. If you have clear periods of the day that could work for (almost) everyone, reserve those times for meetings so that you’re never bleeding into one coworker’s 8am and another’s 8pm.
But in an asynchronous work environment, it’s easy for meetings to get out of hand, as they can feel like the only way to connect with your colleagues. In O’Brian’s experience, you should caution against over-scheduling yourself in an attempt to recreate some facsimile of the daily office. “I’m quicker to ask now, ‘what are we trying to achieve here?’” she says. “If we can’t answer that we’re probably not at the point where we need to have a meeting.”
Tools like collaborative documents, auto-transcripts of meetings, and recording software, can play a big part in enabling asynchronous work to function more seamlessly. Being able to record a short video of yourself explaining your idea to a colleague, or integrating screen recordings into a chat gives us the flexibility of remote work with the more organic collaboration of in-person interaction.
When it comes to accommodating people living in vastly different places, leaning on technology can take a lot of stress and guesswork out of the equation.
“Things that would be a small mistake in the same time zone can become huge pains,” says O’Brian. “That’s why you have to do the planning upfront and then make sure to remain flexible and adaptable.”
If not everyone can attend a meeting it can halt momentum for an entire project—prioritize the people who absolutely need to be there, and then record or take good notes for those who couldn’t join. Recording meetings to share later ensures there’s still a level of human interaction possible between teammates. All the individual nuances that come from someone speaking rather than emailing.
Then stay agile. “At the end of every sprint, team members would do a show and tell about the work they’d been doing for the past two weeks or months, record them, and post them on an internal chat where people could ask questions asynchronously,” says O’Brian. “This is now a business standard for us.”
While so many have struggled to find their place in the remote work environment—like middle managers—this more structured approach to working across time zones can potentially help everyone get their footing. “How do we make sure we’re still delivering a lot of value?” asks O’Brian. “Sometimes we have to have a bit more rigor around how we work.”
No matter what kind of industry you’re working in, the needs of your employees and your clients can provide a roadmap to success—you just have to be willing to ask yourself if you’re ready to put the work in to create a more modern working arrangement that can benefit all parties. “As a consultancy, we are led by clients,” says O’Brian, “but we’re asking now, ‘do we need to do this in person? What’s the value?’”
“If it’s ‘this is what we used to do,’ that’s not good enough anymore.”