(Warning, this post contain 24 hour format times, brace yourself.)

I work for an organization that spans many time zones. We have staff located from New Zealand to the West Coast of the United States, which literally is a whole day away.

Of course during this pandemic we’ve been thinking a lot about how to do remote work. What are the norms, expectations, rules we should develop so that we take advantage of being a culturally diverse and distributed organization? We think those advantages bring all sorts of cool edges to our work. How do we take advantage of , while at the same time making sure that the quality of the work environment we can offer is good, for everyone.

Photo by © Ronan Furuta on Unsplash, juin 2021
A bike with lots of clocks attached to it. Photo by © Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

Of all the things it takes to develop a quality environment for staff, one is how we go about paying attention to our geographic distribution, and how we go about time zones. There are many aspects to working in different time zones. I’m starting with a necessary definition for working hours.

My team spans 4 and a half continents. To give you the measure of this, when ColleagueA wakes up on the US West Coast, it is midnight for ColleagueB in Asia. My colleagueC based in Africa and I are actually the lucky ones, because we sit somewhere in the middle, with acceptable time overlap with all the others.

By acceptable time overlap, I mean that we have a few windows that allow us to speak with our colleagues when both of us are within "working hours". My mornings are Asia's afternoons, my late afternoons are America's mornings. And Africa and I can have lunch together, all of this within working hours!

What are “working hours”?

The pandemic has thrown all normalcy out the window, but for the sake of agreeing on something, let’s decide that "working hours” go from 8.00 (that’s morning) to 19.00 (that would be evening). In France for example, this is a standard workday span.

Considering that we're expected to work about 8 hours a day, some people will start at 8.00 and finish around 17.00, others will start at 10.00 and finish around 19.00, with probably a lot of combinations in between. An hour for lunch somewhere in the middle and you have your 8-hour workday.

Any time before or after these times I decide to consider ‘’inconvenient times’’. Why? Simply because they often are at odds with how life is sliced for many of us. Anything work-related that happens outside the 8.00 to 19.00 span becomes somewhat-to-terribly inconvenient for anyone leading a conventional life[1].

For example:

  • Social life: dinner at friends, after work drinks, women night out, date night, board game night, cinema night, restaurant opening times, you name it.
  • Environment-bound life: the evening news start time is set per country, your favorite show is set to run in a time window that assumes you’re back from the office, shops are open at specific times that fit the local context, your ballet lessons or language courses offer evening slots, etc..
  • Family life: school hours (that start before you go to work), your partner's office hours, dinner with the kids, family pizza movie night, the nanny’s usual working hours, elderly-home visiting times, etc..

Keeping in mind these things is a good idea when you work with people in other geographies than yours. But time zones are tricky, so it's good to know where to begin.

How can I be mindful of time zone trickery[2]? It's simple, just talk to people

I think the underlying rule would be: don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. Would you want to have an important meeting at 21.00 in the middle of your Thursday evening crime series? Or at a time where you’ve been up for more than 15 hours? Probably not. Do you want to be part of a work heavy meeting at 5.00 in the morning? There’s a good chance not. Be mindful, but as I said, time zones are tricky. Don't assume.

A few weeks back I read this newsletter from Raw Signal Group about the future of remote work, post-pandemic. It’s a great read. One thing really stuck out for me:

The biggest impediment to the future of work is how easy it is to remember the people close to you, and how easy it is to forget those further away. These are the problems that stem from a lack of care.

Actually, the answer to time zone trickery is: care.

Here is how you can start to care:

  • Before a meeting, make sure you know where people are located.
  • Once you know, use the right tools to schedule meetings across time zones (there are about a billion on the internetz, Google or Duck Duck Go are your friends).
  • Even when you have that information, don’t ever (and I mean, ever) assume that you know what time is good for others. Not everyone has the same life you have. Some people (like me) have adapted their work routines to accommodate and will take meetings at times you do not expect. They’ve adapted, so they go run errands or pick up their kids at daycare at times that might have been convenient for you to meet. Or they haven’t, and have evening meals to prepare, afternoon classes to attend or morning school runs to do. People like to make their own decisions, as to when they do what.
  • Never, ever assume that people don’t mind staying up late, or getting up early because they’ve done it before, but never assume the contrary either, that it might be too late for them, or too early.
  • This said, never forget what power you may hold over people because sometimes they don't know how to say no.

In short, just talk to people to find a time that works. This will go a long long way.

Being mindful might not be enough, depending on where the balance of power lies, but I’ll tackle that in my next post, where I’ll talk about “inconvenience” and how being really inclusive and mindful means more than talking to people. For now, really, ask people before you move meetings around, or add meetings to their calendar. It does for nice human interactions, too.

This post has a sequel: Time-zone trickery part II - Practicing Inconvenience


[1] We could write a whole post, or even a whole book on conventional vs unconventional, so I would be grateful if you could bear with me on this, and if we left that conversation aside for this once. I’ll be happy to have it another time.

[2] credit to my friend Tanveer for coining the term ;-)