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Collaborating Across Time Zones: How To Be Productive and Inclusive When Working Remotely

The shift to remote work and the rise of outsourcing have made globally distributed teams a reality. This has numerous benefits for companies, including the potential for round-the-clock productivity and the possibility of working with top talent worldwide.

But it also comes with its challenges, including collaborating across time zones. When you’re in New York and a crucial teammate is in Melbourne, it can be hard to find a time when your schedules overlap. So how do you get things done together? 

The short answer is, you make it work. In competitive industries, top talent is hard to find, so more and more businesses are holding on to qualified professionals even when their timezones make collaboration in real-time tricky. With empathy, planning, and the right tools, they are not only overcoming the hurdles of remote work, but becoming even more productive than they would be working with a co-located team.

Here are some of the strategies and tools they use.

Strategies and tools for collaborating across time zones

1. Communicating about work schedules and time zone boundaries

Working odd hours can lead to burnout, so it’s important that leaders and managers model communicating about their work schedules and setting boundaries. This helps promote work-life balance for the entire team.

Ideally, workers should communicate their needs and preferences from the outset so that managers and team members can empathize and accommodate their needs. Team members should keep one another informed of their schedules through auto-responders, online statuses (in Slack), and the team’s shared calendar (to which they should be encouraged to add local holidays), as well as daily/weekly/monthly check-ins.

Additionally, everyone should feel psychologically safe to speak up when work hours and meeting times are negatively impacting their work-life balance.

2. Being flexible

While it’s important to respect schedule preferences and boundaries, being a team player may occasionally involve getting up a little earlier or working a little later than usual to make an important meeting. Making a small sacrifice to get to see your co-workers face-to-face is okay as long as it doesn’t become a routine. 

Depending on how the team is distributed, it can make sense for certain employees to organize their work schedules to be online at the same time teammates in other countries are—at least some days of the week. One way to do that is through split shifts; for example, working a half-day at regular hours and the other half in the evening or early in the morning. This strategy is especially useful for team leaders who want to check in with members whose schedules do not overlap with their usual work schedule.

Being flexible could also look like:

  • Working Sundays in Sao Paulo to hand off tasks for the team in Asia to tackle at the start of their shift on Monday
  • Alternating meeting times so that it’s not just one part of the team that’s being accommodating
  • Making meetings optional and recordings available for those who can’t join in real time
  • Leaving free space in the calendar for impromptu meetings with international teammates

As long as it’s possible given one’s particular situation, needs, and priorities, and it doesn’t create stress or fatigue, being flexible is extremely helpful when collaborating with a globally distributed team.

3. Nailing asynchronous communication

One of the key elements to successfully collaborating across time zones is communicating effectively in an asynchronous environment. That means using the right channels, sharing complete thoughts, writing clearly and concisely, and using tools to get your point across.

Here at TextExpander, we set clear expectations around how we communicate and respond to each other. A great example of this is how we use Slack. It is essentially our “office”—the main place that our team communicates and collaborates with each other. We tend to prioritize messaging each other in public channels to keep things transparent, ask questions directly, and respond to Slack messages within 24 hours, even if it’s just to confirm that the communication was received. 

4. Using project management tools

Project management tools like Basecamp, Asana, and Trello are indispensable for effective asynchronous communication—and remote team collaboration in general. Essentially, they help everyone on the team understand what work there is to do, who is working on what, and when each task is due. Through team collaboration platforms, team members can easily assign tasks and update one another on their progress.

5. Being organized and planning ahead

Working efficiently with a global team requires taking time zones into consideration when organizing or submitting work. If you’re in New York and want feedback from your Hong Kong team about a presentation due on Monday, you’ll need to submit it to them on Thursday at the latest. 

6. Being mindful of other people’s time zones

It’s important to consider where teammates are based when sending messages and scheduling events. Ensuring meeting times are reasonable, staying informed about international holidays, and choosing how and when to send messages are just some ways to be respectful when working with an international team. Tools such as EveryTime Zone, World Clock Meeting Planner, and Google Calendar can be useful for making sense of time zones.

It takes empathy to collaborate across time zones

Keeping a globally-distributed team motivated and productive takes empathy, good communication, and careful planning. The companies that do it successfully use team collaboration tools to organize work, give employees autonomy to do their jobs without supervision, and are mindful of time zones to ensure everyone gets a chance to contribute.

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