As someone who currently has a majority of her meetings between 5 and 10 a.m. due to time zone differences, and whose partner often starts his evening meetings around my (albeit early) bedtime, I am familiar with the challenges of working across time zones and working with people around the globe.
That being said, years before remote work became a familiar concept (though it existed, it was simply called telework), I’ve worked with people with whom I was not collocated (i.e., we were not working in the same place). I’ve completed projects, sometimes over phone and email only, with people I have yet to meet in person. And let’s be real – many people have had this experience as well. In certain jobs, you’re rarely in the office with your colleagues because you’re constantly on the road. In large companies, you may frequently coordinate with colleagues working in different locations—they’re on site and you’re on site, but you’re not at the same site. My best friend from high school once organized a whole party for me while being out of state and not even actually able to attend! (Thanks, Jess! And Jeremy, for coordinating in-state!)
Here are my top strategies for collaborating effectively (distributed or collocated):
- Name your assumptions so you can stop making them. Or at least see if they’re true.
- Be intentional and transparent in your communication and planning so as to avoid the confusion of incorrect assumptions (your own and other people’s).
There’s a whole other post that I could write about assumptions and how they trip us up when we are trying to work together. However, for now, I’ll focus on working across time zones and across organizations and across countries. (I’ll admit to not having much experience with working across different global cultures, specifically, since some fields, like scientific research, tend to have a strong culture of their own. And be rather…English language dominant.)
Many of the same things that work well for collaborating effectively across organizational boundaries (companies, departments, disciplines) are also helpful for collaborating effectively across time zones and geographic boundaries. (Well, hopefully someone else is paying attention to any differing regulations, tax requirements, and all that fun stuff.)
In fact, these practices are beneficial for collaborating effectively no matter whom you’re working with and in what context. If there’s a conflict because you expected someone to reply quickly to an email and they didn’t because it wasn’t within their working hours… Then ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you emailed them when it was after hours in their time zone, a holiday in their country (but not yours), a holiday in their religion (but not yours), their day off, or simply because there was no agreed upon response time and they were in the middle of working on a different priority. You can’t be mad at your colleague when you made assumptions (same working hours, same holiday schedule, that your project is more important than the other projects they were working on). Of course, you could just assume that they are ignoring you or not doing their job – but neither of those choices is particularly constructive.
Teams that I’ve been on where there is effective collaboration have the following:
- A clear vision for what we are all working towards and a clear definition of success
- Role clarity for everyone within the team and also for external parties (e.g., clients, other teams within the organization) who will interact with the team
- Explicit (often written) agreements about how we will work together (governance or how decisions get made and who makes them, communications and response times, working and non-working hours, workflows, etc.)
- Practices and systems that align with and support those agreements, whether it’s a project management tool, processes for information sharing and knowledge management, or the way you structure team meetings
- Recognition of power dynamics* and structures or practices to mitigate these (e.g., not always favoring one time zone over another for meetings, acknowledging that the working language may not be everyone’s first language and that this takes a cognitive toll, awareness of the general tendency for the US teams to have more power when partnering with non-US teams or the headquarters over satellite offices, etc.)
*Depending on the context of your work and whom you’re working with, there are of course all sorts of other power dynamics to consider, but these are examples specific to working across time zones and across different countries.
Perhaps in the future I’ll get the chance to have more experience with working cross-culturally, since I’m not sure yet how that compares to living or traveling among other cultures. But in the meantime, if you’d like to share what has worked well for you in these situations, I’d be interested to learn from your experiences!