7 tips for working across timezones

7 tips for working across timezones

Portrait of Jess Cheung Lark's Author
Portrait of Jess Cheung Lark's Author

Jess Cheung

February 8, 2023


Feb 8, 2023


6 min read


The global workforce today has entered a new normal. Teams you work with span across different cities and countries more than ever. You might have started working with people without ever meeting them.

Why does effective collaboration across timezones matter today?

Remote (and hybrid) working has its virtues, and having a global team means you get to with the best and smartest around the globe. Still, there is no denying that a growing number of people face the challenges brought on by this new normal. The pressure of seizing a time zone overlap too short for any meetings with counterparts. The anxiety of not being able to respond in real time. The unconscious over-explaining to be not misunderstood. And sometimes a deep breath before opening up work applications in the morning and seeing countless unread messages from a timezone that works when you are asleep.

Working across timezones is hard, but there are things you can do to mitigate stress, reduce disconnection, and protect yourself from potential burnout. The teams can be both productive and respectful no matter where they are located. When done well, collaboration across time zones becomes a relay race without baton drops. Teams are able to deliver work with better efficiency and quality. Plus, they will feel together and included even when they work under different schedules.

Tips for turning collaboration across time zones into a successful relay race

Acknowledge time zone differences

Let's admit it. The urge to zero out your ever-increasing number of unreads might keep you awake til midnight more than just occasionally. The hesitance to say no to an out-of-timezone meeting could eventually lead you to say yes. Employees get as close as they can to being collaborative, but they also have to deal with costs.

The truth is, your counterparts on the other side of the laptop might not even know it is 11:00 pm on your side when their day just starts. It's good practice to let those who work with you know your timezone and the available hours. This way, the boundary is acknowledged and remembered.

To do so, you can consider

  • adding your working hours onto your calendar

  • articulating your timezone in your status

  • making your meal breaks and other calendar blocks public

  • giving your working hours in your colleagues' timezones in your personal profile, and

  • getting more comfortable clicking "Reject" to red-eye meetings while proposing a new time slot

Your colleagues might sometimes forget the time zone difference, so you might need to remind them every now and then. The same applies to their schedules, too. Eventually, you and your counterparts will build a clear, mutual understanding of each other's availability to set a solid base for future collaborations.

Build reasonable expectations in response and timelines

Now that you know each other's time zones, it's time to evaluate when someone can respond to messages, invites, and comments and to what extent. Establishing clear expectations is important in any work environment, and it matters even more when working across timezones. You shouldn't expect to assign your counterparts a task during their midnight and hope to see it ready in perfect shape within 2 hours. Even when they manage to do so, it should not be taken for granted. Rather an exception.

Before sharing delivery and timelines, you can try to ask a couple of questions like below to yourself.

  • What's the current time of my colleague?

  • How long does it usually take to finish this task?

  • Are there any other arrangements that this person needs to attend during their day? I should check their calendars.

  • Is there any buffer that I can give for this task, is this too tight of a deadline?

You don't need to have the exact answer to every question. The process of finding the answers will help you figure out when you can get a response and how much your colleagues can work on the tasks you share. Of course, these are often negotiable, so make sure you leave room for discussion, especially if what you are asking for is important and urgent.

Explicit communication on objectives, tasks, and deadlines

Your "today" sometimes means your colleague's "tomorrow". If you sit in San Francisco while your counterpart lives in New York, the 6:00 pm deadline they share can mean 3:00 pm for you. Clear communication is the key to any successful collaboration, and its importance stands out even more when you work across different time zones.

Explicit communication is inevitable when conveying your objectives, tasks, and deadlines in a cross-timezone setting. You have less time for real-time chat and discussion, so make sure to give as many details and context as possible. That way, your colleagues can act on them with fewer questions.

There are a few ways to make sure you communicate your objectives, tasks, and deadlines clearly, provide some convenience and give both sides peace of mind. For example:

  • If you're asking someone for something new, make sure all documents and references are easy to find and permission to these documents is granted. You can do all of these things: Ping your colleagues in chat; send links in one message; share a doc gathering everything.

  • Ask your colleagues to finish anything in their timezones by providing a checklist. This way they know what to do and check before they can finish.

  • When sharing deadlines, convert from date and time to your colleague's timezone to help them understand the time left. You can also set up a reminder before the deadline. The tool will do the work of reminding both of you.

Communicating plainly across timezones means you need to package information and share it in one exchange if possible. This way, colleagues can act immediately and don't need to wait another day just to get the full context. Instead of texting "hi" and then waiting 24 hours, employees can organize information and assignments into short paragraphs and send them together.

Think about how important and time-sensitive the update is and act accordingly

There are a lot of ways to communicate at work - chats, meetings, comments on documents, automated bots, emails, and more. People usually can use them intuitively, but working across timezones sometimes can lead to overuse or underuse of certain channels.

When teams are working across timezones, real-time communication via IM (instant messaging) and meetings can be challenging. Sometimes they might be overused for matters that teams can discuss and align asynchronously. Weighing in on urgency and priority shows respect for everyone's time and schedule and helps you and your colleagues choose a better communication method.

Here is a matrix to refer to when you are not 100% sure how priority and urgency come into play in a cross-timezone setting. You can try these guidelines with your counterparts in a different timezone.

  • Important & time-sensitive: Send instant messages together with relevant references to alert your counterparts immediately and mark your message as urgent, then schedule a meeting at their earliest possible date and time to discuss.

  • Important but not so urgent: Consider async communication first, such as reading and commenting on documents in your own timezone. This way, colleagues come into a meeting with full context and the team can go directly into discussion and alignment on the next steps.

  • Less important but time-sensitive: Use automated communication, such as automatic reminders and task management, to help the team stay on schedule.

  • Neither important nor urgent: teams can choose to reduce or mute such information.

Reserve dedicated hours for flexible schedules

Working across timezones can get unpredictable. Teams will need to be ready for potential contingencies. Besides, fixed schedules might make a group of people within a certain timezone constantly need to stay late.

Therefore, being open to different work schedules or adjusting your workday to accommodate different timezones will help create a middle ground. No one needs to be the night owl in the group all the time, and the teams can take turns digesting the schedule challenge.

As a team, each person can find specific days and hours to accommodate needs like meetings and instant chats. For example, if you are in Singapore while your counterpart is in LA, you can start your Tuesday morning at 7:30 am every now and then to make more connections in real-time.

Likewise, your LA buddy can start late at 1:00 pm every Thursday to connect with you more conveniently. An enlarged window of overlapping time zones means more slots to connect, bond, and collaborate to get things done on the spot.

Be more expressive of appreciation, recognition, and reaction

It is the team, made of people from diverse backgrounds, expertise and cultures, that makes cross-timezone work possible. Computer-mediated communication may help break down the barriers of time, location, and hierarchies. However, it can be difficult to sense each other's tones when working across timezones as everything is more often delivered asynchronously.

Expressing your appreciation, recognition, and reaction to each other's work and partnership helps mitigate the lack of social cues. Expressions can go in various formats. It can be as simple as a ❤ emoji to a message to as formal as a shoutout to your counterpart's line managers. Being welcomed and recognized makes employees feel more included, especially when they're not physically together and sometimes alone in a country. It supercharges them to work harder and collaborate better.

Make sure you have the right tool

All of these tips will help teams across time zones stay productive while respecting each other's schedules. And the right tools are the bread and butter for employees across time zones to make any work happen. Video conferencing, messenger, docs, calendar, and more are available to help teams work according to their schedules and be aware of other colleagues' timetables. Gartner research indicates that organizations will continue to protect efficiency-driven digital investments in their IT spending.

Teams with employees working across timezones should use tools that let them

  • Compare and identify the timezone difference easily time, and

  • Communicate using sync or async channels with flexibility

Contact us today to learn more about how Lark can enable your cross-timezone teams to run a perfect relay race with no baton drops.

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