You remember how in my previous blog post I talked about care? I want to expand on care and its twin bothersome inconvenience.
In many conversations at our organization, there’s often a reproach of “US centrism”, or even “US West Coast centrism” when it comes to time zones (other things too, but we’ll stick to time zones now).
And it’s true.
How does West Coast Centrism manifest?
These observations are based on my experience working for an organization which had its main office in San Francisco until last March (the office is closed for now) and which has around 350 out of 500 of its employees in the United States. The center of power is definitely located on the West Coast of the United States (where most of our executives are).
Here are concrete examples:
- Deadlines might be set on Friday nights, 18.00 San Francisco time. For me in Germany, Friday 18.00 in San Francisco is actually Saturday 3.00 in the morning. Working to meet a deadline with colleagues in San Francisco—expecting their feedback or them expecting mine—probably means working late into the night. For my colleagues in Bangalore or Singapore, that’s square into the weekend, 6.30 and 9.00 on Saturday respectively.
- Announcements might be made mid-day San Francisco time, which means they land in inboxes in a lot of people’s evening. If it’s a “no frills” announcement, no problem! Getting stale news is less important. If it’s a complicated one, a difficult one, or an important one, then gut-reactions/discussions happen in real time, without all the people (probably about one third of our workforce) who are having dinner or sleeping. They wake up to a new organization, a new colleague, a new policy and they’ve never had a chance to express their surprise, happiness or disagreement in a timely fashion. It gives them the impression that their reactions don’t matter.
- Call for feedback on important decisions might go with
“Please give your feedback before EOD, when this goes out”(meaning, End of Day San Francisco time). This effectively shuts out people in other time zones to give feedback, and leaves the decision making always happening on the West Coast, or the United States.
This to state a few.
To adapt or not to adapt
As someone sitting in Germany, I have had to structure my work day outside of working hours (see a definition in Part 1). I have made the decision to set aside two days in the week where I will accept meetings up to 22.00 my time. Why? Because this effectively triples the available overlapping time with people on the West Coast of the United States. And while I’ve made this adaptation routine, it is still an inconvenience. It means no dinner with my kids. Or sometimes being hungry on a call and less focused.
Today, as I was speaking with one of my colleagues, I thought about this further. And I realized that it is actually easier for me to be inconvenienced, than it is to inconvenience someone. If I'm looking for the “lowest common inconvenience”, I have to think twice as much and do a lot of back and forth. I have other things to do with my time than to stalk people's calendars. In short, the inconvenience of having to battle for someone to be inconvenienced takes a bigger toll on me than my being inconvenienced in the first place. Are you still following?
On Privilege, Power and Inconvenience
A few months back, our organization took a crack at rethinking the Monthly All Staff meeting times to accommodate more time zones. We ended up rotating between the following times, which is a huge improvement from what we had before:
- UTC times: 15:00 - 16:00 - 21:00 - 01:00
For the sake of illustration, however, let me translate what this means in various time zones (in bold, the convenient times).
- Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Halifax (UTC-3): 12:00 - 13:00 - 18:00 - 22:00
- New-York, Toronto, Santiago (UTC-4): 11:00 - 12:00 - 17:00 - 21:00
- San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles: (UTC-7): 8:00 - 9:00 - 14:00 - 18:00
- Johannesburg, Cairo, Paris, Copenhagen (UTC+2): 17:00 - 18:00 - 23:00 - 3:00
- Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata: (UTC+5:30): 20:30 - 21:30 - 2:30 - 6:30
- Bangkok, Jakarta (UTC+7): 22:00 - 23:00 - 4:00 - 8:00
- Singapore, Taipei (UTC+8): 23:00 - 0:00 - 5:00 - 9:00
- Sydney, Melbourne (UTC+10): 1:00 - 2:00 - 7:00 - 11:00
As you can see, some parts of the world never get to participate in that meeting during working hours, and others, well... do. Interestingly enough, the only time zone for which the times are always convenient is the West Coast of the United States. Four convenient times out of four. Our Indian colleagues never have a convenient meeting time, and Asia in general really drew the short straw.
Last week I listened to Adam Grant’s podcast Work Life. John Amaechi was a guest speaker and they discussed Building an Anti-Racist Workplace. John Amaechi put words to something I have toyed with for quite a while as I was thinking up this blog post. He talks about privilege in those terms (emphasis mine):
“Privilege is a hard concept for people to understand because normally when we talk of privilege we imagine immediate, unearned riches and tangible benefits for anyone who has it. But white privilege, and indeed all privilege, is actually more about the absence of inconvenience, the absence of an impediment or challenge. And as such, when you have it, you really don't notice it. But when it's absent, it affects everything you do.”
And that’s exactly it. In my world of working across time zones,
privilege and power dictate whose calendar is the least inconvenienced. And because the organization’s power resides on the West Coast of the United States, people with less actual power in the organization, but who are located there also benefit from this state of affairs. Which may cause people to miss the issue entirely. A lot of people stay up late Eastward from San Francisco, I rarely see people in San Francisco staying up late, or getting up really early. There is also a strange unwritten rule that it is ok to book meetings late in the evening in people’s day, rather than very early in the morning, which favors the US West Coast.
I talked about care before, and how important it is to talk to people. I stand by it. Care should not make any of us forget where power lies, and how it manifests in unexpected but real ways. By refusing to be inconvenienced, we perpetuate the powers that are, and implicitly expect that other people will make the necessary arrangements. Worse, we don’t even see that they make those arrangements.
The solution? Seek to be actively inconvenienced.
Here are a few tips to do that:
- Make space in your calendar explicitly stating that these are for “other time zones”, at times you know others will be surprised and happy to find.
- Do not wait for people to ask if they can book a meeting “at that time”, but tell them clearly, because there is a chance that depending on where they sit (location OR power structure), they will not trust themselves to ask.
- Alternate recurring meetings if there are no convenient times for all, at a time that is inconvenient for each in turn. Even meetings where the ones inconvenienced are the majority. And when it's your turn to be inconvenienced, show up.
- Do not, and I repeat, do not move recurring meetings that might be inconvenient for some people, because you don't know how much more inconvenient the meeting might be on another day. Especially not if it's a meeting with 20 people, and it's moved for one person. Or two.
- Think about deadlines, announcements, anything that is time-bound with a hint of fairness. We can’t always accommodate everyone, but we should not always inconvenience the same people.
In short, practice inconvenience in how you think about your time and that of your colleagues, because it will help you to care better, and make for a more equitable workplace.
 Let me hereby thank the few West Coast colleagues over the years who have woken up super early, or went to bed really late. They exist. They’re the best. <3
 I am not sure if it’s a general rule, or one that was shaped through organizational culture. It might well be that in other organizations with a different location of power, this trend is reversed.