The Challenges, Benefits, and Solutions of Remote Teams Working Across Time Zones

Avatar by Chelsea Olson Published Sep 24, 2019 Last updated Sep 25, 2019

With the advent of cloud collaboration tools, remote work is not just possible; it’s popular. Thousands of businesses today are made up of team members from across the country and across the globe. Remote work has opened doors to companies engaging professionals who could never have relocated to live near headquarters, which has added incredible diversity, accessibility, and opportunity to each company culture. A diverse team made up of remote professionals from all-over is a powerhouse of creativity and availability, but it also comes with more than a few new challenges.

The biggest, as you may have already noticed, is time zones. How do team members bridge the gap between time zones when they are working wildly different hours and schedules? This is a particularly challenging question for international teams, but don’t underestimate the difference in time just from coast to continental coast. Today, we’re here to explore some of the benefits of a team spread across time zones, some of the challenges, and the solutions that make it work.

Benefits of The 24-Hour Development Cycle

There are some serious benefits to having team members clocking in from all over the world. The work never stops, there’s always someone to handle an emergency, and it creates a remarkably friendly online working environment.

1.     There’s Always Someone Online Working

When your team crosses time zones, especially international time zones, there is rarely a time when there is no one logged in. If a new task comes in or if a project is left half-done, there is someone to take care of it. Projects are continually moving forward as each new team member takes up the task. It creates a more fluid experience of the workday and an confidence that no work will be left unfinished.

2.     Wake Up to Friendly Messages and Completed Work

When team members log on in the morning, they are waking to a night full of work done by others. Their inbox may have friendly messages and questions waiting to be answered and work left unfinished the night before is tidily completed and packaged for the next stage. This is not only great for productivity, it’s fantastic for morale.

3.     Staying Up Late is Never Lonely

Finally, for some teams, it’s reasonable for team members to occasionally log in and clock hours during unusual times. If a remote team member can’t sleep and logs in at midnight their time to get some extra work done, they have company. Team members in other time zones will be surprised and happy to see them. Working late is never lonely when you have a multi-time -zone team.

Challenge: Unsynced Team Time

Of course, there are a few challenges that come with the enjoyment, convenience, and productivity of a multi-time-zone team. Sometimes, having team members on a different schedule is not so convenient.

1.     Teammates are Sleeping When You Want to Collaborate

Live collaboration is the biggest challenge with a team across multiple time zones. When you’re eager for some ongoing collaboration of quick questions, answers, and brainstorming or fast shared problem-solving, it can be frustrating that the best team member for the task isn’t awake yet and won’t be for hours.

2.     Can’t Always Get Answers On Time

Likewise, answers to questions are not always easy to acquire. If you need a quick answer before moving on with a project decision, that answer and maybe even the whole project will need to wait until a distant team member logs in. If not managed correctly, this kind of thing can put schedules behind.

3.     Miscommunications Can Lead to Hours of Misguided Work

Then there’s the risk of miscommunication with your asynchronous messaging. Team members able to live-chat all day can quickly clear up misunderstandings while remote differing-time-zone teams may have to guess. And if someone guesses wrong, several hours of project work might be based off an incorrect or misinterpreted message.

Time Zone Team Tips

When you combine the benefits and challenges, what should bubble to the top is a handful of excellent solutions that will bring your team together and make your multi-time-zone collaboration an ongoing enjoyable experience.

1.     Visually Map Your Overlapping Schedules

Start with a visualization of how your typical schedules overlap. A color-shaded bar graph of the day is often a good way to do this. Looking at the map, you can quickly identify which times team members will overlap and can collaborate. Everyone should have access and, ideally, it should be updatable for changing personal schedules.

2.     Hold Weekly/Daily All-Hands Meetings

Once you can look at the overlapping schedules, plan a regular all-hands meeting. Even if some people must get up early or stay up late, the all-hands meeting is essential to building team understanding, coordinating efforts, and feeling like you’re all one team instead of independent individuals. Have an agenda, get the meeting done quickly, then let everyone get to work or wind down as they see fit.

3.     Share a 24/7 Chat Channel

Ask any remote widespread team and they will tell you that the ‘glue’ of their team cohesion is a chat channel, usually Slack but not always. The chat channel isn’t just for work and collaboration. Mainly, it’s for sharing water cooler talk across continents and oceans. When your team can chat with each other at any time or leave asynchronous messages through the same channel, everyone will grow closer and get better at coordinating their wildly different lives and schedules.

4.     Share a Unified Task Board

For coordinating work, make sure you have a unified team task board and separate personal team task boards. Trello is a great tool for this, but any kind of unified task system will do if it works for your team. The goal is to ensure that everyone is looking at and working toward the same goals at the same time. Goals you all understand and are working together to achieve minimize the risk of miscommunication. These task boards also let you easily share information, providing a kind of FAQ or resource center for quick question asks-and-answers

5.     Build A Routine Around the Hand-Off Schedule

Again, using your mapped schedules, build a workflow routine around when team members are ‘handing-off’ their tasks to one another. Use this to build a tiered decision-making process, to pass messages, and to schedule collaboration time. When you’re aware of when schedules are going to overlap, you can make remote collaboration a routine. For example, two team members can plan to work together as one prepares to log off and the other warms up for their morning.

6.     Share Minutes/Notes on Not-All-Hands Collaborations

Finally, make a habit of collecting notes and meeting minutes and emailing them to everyone. Not only are these useful for reference, but they ensure that if someone can’t make it to a most-hands meeting or an impromptu team collaboration session, that they are kept in the loop and welcomed to comment in the chatroom on any decisions or progress that they missed.

Remote work is an incredible innovation and a great tool for modern businesses. Teams made up of widespread remote professionals can absolutely work together and even collaborate across their time zones and across the globe.