9 ways to manage teams across time zones

What do you do when it’s 5 pm here and 9 am there? Libby Penn explains how to manage teams across time zones.

When you’re starting out in one location it’s easy to keep everyone connected. There’s no need for big email chains or process presentations because the left hand can see and hear what the right hand is doing.

Then you start to grow. The customer footprint expands and suddenly you’re a global business with people and teams in different geographies. The trend toward an increasingly remote and disparate workforce has been underway for at least two decades, but a recent Gallup Study shows its intensified in the last five years.

That’s certainly consistent with our experience – but while we understand that the tune of an international team can’t be a perfect 9-to-5 harmony, knowing something isn’t the same as living it.

Through trial, error, and experience we’ve built a system for maximises the value of a multinational presence while minimising the disruption it can cause for individuals. Since this is a shared experience for many startups I thought I would share the nine practices we’ve put in place:

Make video calls easy

Google hangouts has been revolutionary for us – the ability to see each other when you’re talking really helps the conversation flow more clearly as you can take a read on body language. All our meeting rooms are equipped with chrome boxes so it’s easy to join a call at the touch of a button.

Embrace asynchronous communication

Hangouts are great, but if you’re asking people to video conference in at 5 am or 11 pm, it’s just that much harder if they’re expected to look smart as well. When people are joining in out-of-hours time slots, consider having everyone on a screen share, with instant messaging enabled and webcams off.

Set core hours

Home has to be somewhere. For us the normal business work day is in 11:00-17:00, regardless of where you’re based.  Our flexi-time rule means you just have to work the total number of hours. How you do it is up to you as long as you’re in for the core.

Map where the regions overlap

You need to have a general sense of when non-HQ people will be available. With the home office based in London, core hours for the team in New York would be 16:00-22:00 GMT. That means we have regular daily overlap between 16:00 and 17:00, but if someone in NYC is travelling to a customer location in Vancouver, that gets trickier.

One option is to agree a few early evenings each week where London HQ can be available for early AM calls in a West Coast time zone. If your team is in APAC, agree an evening slot where team members there will be available a couple of times a week. These overlaps will be hard to track so it’s a good idea to update a shared weekly calendar that maps them, and task one person with maintaining it.

Make time-zone awareness part of daily life in HQ

Being mindful of what time it is in Toronto can be difficult when the London workday is packed with deadlines and deliverables. Ideally you want to avoid asking a teammate in America to kick-off a new project if they’re just waking up, or about to log off for the night.

Stop chasing

If you only have an hour or two of overlap on a given day, confusion about tasks and ownership can be deadly. Make it a standard agenda item for everyone in a call or meeting to list their actions at the end so that everyone’s clear on next steps, deadlines, and expectations. When we instituted this we started spending a lot less time chasing for updates. Productivity went up and miscommunication went down.

Beware of burnout

When people are working remotely or in a regional office, it can be hard to define an expectation on how available they need to be to ‘HQ’. So someone needs to be charged with keeping an eye out for signs of burnout. If a team member in New York has been on multiple out-of-hours calls, is travelling frequently, and repeatedly sending emails at 10pm EST, someone needs to let them off the hook.

It’s important to know when to leave people alone `and let them balance their own workloads. Treat people like adults and make sure they have clear objectives and clear expectations. The rest is up to them.

Have a buddy system

Everyone outside the London HQ is assigned a London ‘buddy’ who’s job it is to keep them informed about daily & weekly goings on, client feedback, and the small but important water-cooler moments that make our working lives easier.

Don’t forget face time

Dispersed teams and de-centralised structures allow growing companies to get a lot done in a lot of places, but nothing beats drinking from the same tea tray for connecting folk on a personal level. You should get people around a table for proper meetings on a regular basis. We also organise extended secondments so that people get a sense of shared culture and the differences in work-styles and routines between offices.

That’s the kind of investment that gets people on 10PM calls to collaborate with colleagues.

Libby Penn is Chief Operating Officer of London-based Spektrix.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.