How-to Guide for Managing Teams Across Time Zones

Best practices for managing teams across more than one time zone, such as communicating and establishing boundaries.

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The Office Culture Shift: Making the Transition To Remote While Keeping Your Company Culture Intact
Do you have employees located across the U.S. or in other countries?

Here's what you need to know:

  • Communication is key to setting expectations on working hours
  • Encourage employees to block off their calendar when they aren't available
  • Use shared drives so everyone has access to all documents at all time

The COVID-19 pandemic has been — and continues to be — awful in many ways. One small silver lining, though, has been the newfound freedom that freshly remote workers have discovered as a result.

According to data from the United States Postal Service, more than 15.9 million people have moved since the pandemic began. Unchained from the offices that kept people in cities from New York to San Francisco, people have fled the coasts in favor of cheaper, more hospitable cities like Bozeman, Montana.

For managers, HR, and people ops leaders, this shift in location has led to a new challenge: managing teams across time zones.

Perhaps you’re still working out the kinks of a dispersed workforce or are realizing that the perk of being location independent isn’t something you’ll be able to easily take away. Regardless, here’s a crash course on how to manage workers across time zones.

Clearly communicate expectations

The thing about managing teams that are spread out across time zones is that it can get confusing pretty quickly.

Are team members expected to keep the hours of the time zone where the office is or can they work on a local schedule? If they’re going to be in a different time zone permanently, how often are they expected to physically visit the office?

Your employees should know when they’re expected to be available to respond to emails and other communication.

When you have a team of people who are dispersed even just across the U.S., it’s important to clearly communicate any and all expectations. Your employees should know when they’re expected to respond to emails and be on Slack. If people keep different schedules, everyone should know or have access to their teammates’ working hours so they can schedule meetings accordingly. Are employees expected to attend meetings that are scheduled before, say, 8am local time?

There’s no one answer here. The goal is to figure out what rules and expectations are going to be necessary to make this work for you and your team. Then, you have to communicate that clearly to everyone.

Establish firm work boundaries

While establishing boundaries overlaps a bit with communicating expectations, it is distinctly different and is an important element on its own.

How late is too late (and how early is too early) to schedule meetings based on local times? No one can work every hour of every day to accommodate the far-reaching schedules of distributed teams. Not only is it not possible, but it’ll quickly lead to employee burnout if this slips through the cracks.

Encourage employees to block off the times outside of their working hours on their calendars. Establish a process for requesting meetings outside of someone’s regular working hours. Of course they’ll have to happen from time to time, but it works best if you ask them what day can work best for a late night in advance.

It is unreasonable to expect workers to be available from 8 am to 5 pm across all time zones.

The goal is to ensure that a dispersed team doesn’t inadvertently lead to team members working from 8 am ET to 8 pm PT.

Be specific when discussing dates and times

Especially if your headquarters is the place where most employees work, time zones can quickly be incorrectly assumed, and meetings can be derailed as a result.

This is a great area where you can lead by example. Whenever you discuss a date or time, use the actual date rather than just the day of the week (especially if you have an international team). Also, whenever you mention time, be sure to include the time zone you’re talking about.

This way, there is zero confusion about exactly what day and time you’re discussing so that meetings and the like go off without a hitch.

Consider using split shifts for coverage needs

If you have to maintain certain hours of coverage despite your employees’ locations, split shifts can be an excellent solution.

Rather than having someone work an entire day based on a different time zone, consider splitting the day up among your employees. That way no one has to completely abandon their usual routine. It’s a simple give and take that solves this problem.

At the end of the day, if workers are going to be away from the offices, timing sacrifices will have to be made here and there. The goal is to not make them too onerous.

Make the most of technology

There are a number of software tools and solutions that make managing a remote team easier.

Calendly lets people set their own meeting hours and schedule meetings based on time zones, taking a lot of the guesswork out of scheduling.

Using a shared drive means everyone has access to all documents at any time.

Of course, there are also share points like Box and Dropbox that can help, too. If you encourage everyone to keep their work in a shared space, you can reduce the instances of someone sending a frantic email in the middle of someone else’s night just to get one document.

Ultimately, when managing a team across time zones, be ready to be flexible. Just because something seems to make a lot of sense, in theory, doesn’t mean it will go well in practice, so be prepared to adjust as you go.

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