Effectively Collaborating Across Timezones

This is also posted on LinkedIn Pulse.

More and more of us are working as part of remote teams, either with our clients, with members of our own organization who are located in other cities, with off shore service providers, or with telecommuters. Some studies show that there has been a growth of over 80% between 2005 to today in the number of people who ‘telecommute’. In addition, the constant need to keep costs controlled means that larger companies are balancing their global workforce by distributing their staff around the world and are working more and more with off shore talent. In my work, I’ve collaborated with clients based in Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, California, Illinois, Virginia, Philadelphia, and Boston from New York, and internal teams distributed with as many as 18 hours between office timezones. As part of my PhD, I collaborated with a NY dance company over Skype while I was based in New York and while at PayPal (briefly) I had a team who was almost entirely remote.


What I’ve learned is that working with distributed teams can be enormously rewarding as you get the benefit of working with highly specialized talent, often in very different cultural conditions than you live in, and with a greater flow of productive work time (teams from one timezone can hand off work to the next timezone, etc). Ensuring successful collaboration, though, is not always straightforward. It is very easy to slip into the 24-hour workday, where you keep working as each timezone comes on line, never stopping to refresh and relax (I am guilty of having done this), or to misinterpret the context around communications that are often sent in written format, which can lead to unnecessary escalation of anxiety. Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are a few key things that help to make these cross-timezone, often cross-cultural collaborations successful, almost all of which are really common sense but are often forgotten.

Considerations for Remote Collaboration


Meet In Person:

It is ironic, I know, to suggest that meeting in person is important, but, in my experience, starting off with an in-person meeting or workshop makes an enormous difference to the success of working with distributed teams. If there is budget and time to allow it, even twenty-four hours together is worth the effort. Meeting face-to face provides collaborators with a chance to gain a richer understanding of the individual personalities in the group. The trust that can develop in a short time spent in the same room can be foundational to ensuring that subsequent written or phone communication will be more successful; individual senses of humor, approaches to communication, and styles are much easier to grasp in person. There is also a humanizing effect to meeting someone in person that translates to remote work after you meet. If you can’t afford to meet in person at the beginning, it is still worth trying to find a time to meet at some point during the project life cycle. It almost always makes a significant difference.


Take Advantage of Collaboration Tools:

At the start of any collaboration you should select the tools you are going to use; when working remotely this is even more important than when you are co-located. My advice is to choose tools that everyone on the team is comfortable with, be careful not too choose too many, and make sure that they cover the major aspects of collaboration: synchronous communication (i.e., chat), file sharing and collaborative document editing, video conferencing, scheduling, status updates, and project process tracking.


I love Slack as a hub for team collaboration: it essentially works as a chat window but is searchable, allows for tagging of conversations, and integrates with just about any other tool you might use (box, dropbox, evernote, etc). It is great for synchronous communication (chatting) and for asynchronous communication (i.e., leaving a message for someone), and it is a useful tool for collaborative note taking. Tools like Basecamp, Asana, Confluence, and Jira can all be useful as well, but I find that they often became a drag on productivity as you have to constantly update them. With Slack, everything is searchable so you don’t have to setup pages and write descriptions of every single thing you’ve done. The instant messaging that Slack and other tools provide can be incredibly helpful when presenting work to clients with a team that is distributed: whoever is in the room with the client can provide instant feedback and meeting guidance to the remote team to help steer them in the right direction. I can’t count how many times I’ve sent messages like ‘she’s smiling’ or ‘they are nodding their heads’ or ‘please stop’ when I’ve been the in-the-room presence to help guide my remote team. That instant feedback has made the crucial difference between a client presentation going smoothly and being a train wreck of missed and mixed signals.


For project management, timelines, etc, I love Smartsheet, which is a cloud-based tool for managing projects that allows for calendar and gantt views of timelines and is shareable to those who don’t have an account. It also, like Slack, integrates with many other applications so it can sit nicely within an ecosystem that includes tools you might already be using (like Google’s suite of collaboration tools). If given the choice, I use a combination of Slack, Box (for file storage), some kind of video conferencing service (Google Hangout, GotoMeeting, Skype, Uberconference or Webex), and Smartsheet when I am working with remote teams. I also always use a shared calendar (like Google Calendar) to make sure that everyone is aware of time off, local holidays, and important meetings.


Because each team is different, though, I am flexible about what tools I use as long as the basic functions are covered and the tools serve the team (instead of the team serving the tools). Perhaps the most important advice I have is that once you choose your tools, stick to them. Of course if something really isn’t working, than ditch it, but the more you use a set of tools the better they will perform for you.


Set a Strict Cadence (and Follow It):

Consistency is key with remote collaboration: set up regular touch points with your teams that have very clear agendas and capture the outcomes as soon as possible. Do not cancel regular meetings unless you absolutely have to; make sure they become habitual. If you do need to cancel, do it as much in advance as possible (24-hours ideally) so that time can be used for other purposes. At the same time, do not schedule meetings you don’t need; make sure every meeting is valuable. For many of my projects I setup a cadence that includes a daily stand up/check in done over video conference if possible (seeing each other’s faces is really helpful), a weekly or twice-weekly work share, and a weekly status meeting. I then try to have one-on-one meetings with project leads or key players on a rotating basis. Because there is often limited overlap in timezones, it is important that every shared hour be used efficiently – short meetings with very focused agendas work best.

 
Respect Each Other’s Time:

If you are in really disadvantageous time zones where there is no overlap of your normal workdays, consider rotating who has to work early or stay late when determining your meeting cadence. Alternately, I’ve sometimes seen teams decide to adjust their normal working hours completely to create more overlap between offices. Most important for me is to show respect for each other by coming up with a fair approach to creating overlapping working hours that doesn’t punish one time zone more than others. It is also polite to always include all relevant timezones in meeting invites and notes (not just the timezone where you are located).

 

Set Clear Roles and Responsibilities:

In all projects having clear roles and responsibilities is important. When you are working with remote teams, however, clarity about what fellow team members are doing is critical because the time that it takes to ask who the decision maker is for a specific task is potentially spread across many more hours. Imagine you are in New York and working with a team in Singapore; this is a timezone difference of 12 hours, which means when it is 7am in NY it is 7pm in Singapore. If the leadership team is based in Singapore, you arrive at work in New York at 8am and realize you don’t know who to ask for a key decision, your question to your leaders team will sit out there on email (potentially) for an entire day. Having a simple roles and responsibilities matrix, or even a RACI (I know many people hate these) can vastly improve the speed at which team members are able to make decisions. Clarity on roles will also avoid duplication of effort and encourage team members to take the most direct route possible to making progress. In addition, with distributed teams, you should consider whether it is possible to split authority across timezones so key decision makers are available for as many working hours as possible.

Stop Working:

Overworking is a major problem that leads to decreased quality and productivity. Many of us (myself included) have a hard time turning off our email and shutting down our devices at night. The research on productivity is very clear: the more time you take off, the more productive you are. But when you are working on a project across timezones the temptation to keep your email active as each subsequent timezone comes online can be seductive. On some of the projects that I’ve led, I felt the fear that I’d be slowing someone down if I didn’t respond to emails all night long. The result was that I completely burnt out in a very short time. To deal with this, I forced myself to turn off at 7 or 8 at night and I didn’t look at email at all after that point. I provided team members with my cell phone number, though, which could be used for text messages if there was something absolutely critical that needed a decision. The more I turned off, the more teams were autonomous, and the more able I was to provide good leadership.

Enjoy!

In many ways the considerations above are basic aspects of good project management regardless of where the team(s) are based. In the simplest terms, what I’m touching on here are merely different aspects of effective communication. However, working with distributed teams adds another layer of complexity to projects that reveals the cracks in our processes; if there is any weakness in your communication skills, remote collaboration is bound to reveal the cracks. My advice: take the time to setup your structure and your process right at the beginning, tweak as you go, and enjoy the ride!

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