My current team spans two hemispheres and three time zones, with a portion of the team in North America and another in Southeast Asia. With the project in an early research and planning phase, collaboration is crucial for figuring out uncertainties. How then, do we get work done when the most reasonable time overlap is only two hours a day? As we navigate cultural and timezone differences, I have found the following ideas helpful to promote teamwork.
Be more detailed in written communication.
I’m a firm believer in concise written communication. Maybe it’s because I prefer having conversations in person or that I feel that it sometimes takes too long to write everything down. However, with limited access to teammates during working hours, it became all too apparent that written communication shouldn’t be short. Everything could use a little bit more context, explanation, and documentation. When Jira tickets were written with more description and thoughtful specificity, people were less likely to be blocked by an unanswered question.
Share aligned meeting goals.
It is good practice to know the goals of meetings, regardless of whether those goals can be accomplished or not. That is true when meetings can be held anytime between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but even more so when they can be only scheduled in a two-hour window from 8 to 10 am. I’ve found it really helpful to communicate the meeting goals in two steps. The first is when the meeting invite goes out; this should clearly indicate what you’re hoping the meeting will accomplish. The second is at the beginning of the meeting. When the goals are communicated, it is much easier to keep the meeting on track and efficient.
Make room for connecting conversations.
There is so much to be said about the small connections we make with teammates during our work days. These connections are crucial for building trust and shared understanding. With such short overlaps in my team, it is hard to build those connections. With just a right amount of set time for small conversations, focused efforts can make a big difference in building connections. For example, a short segue question at the beginning of meetings can spur chatter. The more crucial point, however, is to pick something that can be used to bridge multiple cultures. I would suggest questions that almost anyone can easily relate or respond to, like: “What is your favorite breakfast?”
Push for async communications.
Working with a remote cross-time-zone team, more than 80% of our communication is async. Pushing for better async communication styles is important. Here are a few that I really like and always try to remember to do:
Threading messages under a topic instead of replying all in the chat. This allows topics to be grouped and not as easily lost among hundreds of replies.
Post follow-up messages even when something is resolved in meetings. This will give others context when they stumble upon the original question, comment, or thought.
Surface conversations to group messages when possible to allow context and input. The goal of surfacing group messages is to emulate moments in real life when someone could have a solution by overhearing a discussion.
Be mindful of local time.
A great way to build sustainability in a cross-time-zone team is to be empathetic and mindful of your teammates’ local time. For example, a meeting running over early in the day for me is just 15 minutes overtime, but this can mean that my teammate in India will miss dinner. Similarly, be mindful to not schedule Friday morning meetings because it will be Friday night and the end of the workweek for others.
Although nothing beats working next to a teammate in the same timezone, these tips have helped with some of the cross-timezone team challenges, creating collaborative environments that can overcome distance.