Working Across Time Zones Can be Tough. Here’s How to Manage.

The future of work is remote, which means negotiating different time zones is an inescapable reality. Read on for 10+ strategies on making your communication inclusive and seamless.

with Sophia Bernazzani of Owl Labs and Jevin Maltais of Building Remote Teams

Watch our Best Practices for Managing Time Zones webinar with Jevin Maltais of Building Remote Teams and Sophia Bernazzani of Owl Labs.

Maybe your sales team is in Chicago and your dev team is in Dublin. Maybe you’re headquartered in Sydney but work with contractors around the globe. Or maybe you’re fully distributed, with teammates on every continent around the world. The advantage of working remotely? You’ll get access to the best talent anywhere. The challenge? Working across time zones.

Communication in particular is hard when one team is arriving at the office just as another is leaving, or when one teammate is sleeping peacefully just as another is hitting their midday stride. But there are ways to tackle differences between time zones that preserve collaboration and keep communication effective.

Synchronous  vs. Asynchronous Communication

There are two types of communication: that which happens in real time (synchronous) and that which spans a period of time (asynchronous). The key to good collaboration when working remotely—especially across time zones—is choosing the right kind of communication for the job at hand.

Synchronous Communication

Pros + Cons

✅ Feedback in real time

✅ Voice and/or video is helpful for complex or sensitive conversations

⛔️ Interrupts workflows

⛔️ May require compromise on timing

When to use synchronous communication: relationship building, urgent tasks, deep collaboration, project kickoffs or retros, performance management or feedback sessions, virtual social events and coffee meetups.

Asynchronous Communication

Pros + Cons

✅ Allows time and space for deeper work and reflection

✅ Adaptable to everyone’s individual schedules

⛔️ Slower feedback loops

⛔️ Potential for miscommunication or misunderstanding

When to use asynchronous communication: non-urgent tasks, quick edits or requests for feedback, mid-project check-ins, daily stand-ups, routine announcements or updates.

Synchronous Communication

So you’ve decided that synchronous communication is the best method for the task at hand. What next?

Plan meetings thoughtfully

First things first: make a list of different time zones where your teammates are working, and find the overlap between 8am-6pm using your calendar or a tool like Choose those overlap times as your core team-wide meeting windows. Smaller one-off meetings and 1:1s can be more flexible and based on attendees’ individual schedules. If the whole team is involved, there will inevitably be compromise in scheduling, so be judicious and be sure that the compromise is worth the value of the meeting: think face-time with company leaders or information that’s needed to do a job well.

Given the compromise involved in scheduling whole-team syncs across time zones, Sophia recommends a tactic they use at Owl Labs: rotating all-hands meeting times. Yes, it has the potential to get confusing. But the upside is happiness and flexibility. Between personal schedule preferences and personal commitments, one group of employees shouldn’t be asked to compromise every single time.

Don’t forget that just because meetings are in a different time zone doesn’t mean your distributed employees shouldn’t get the same perks as employees in HQ. If you’re catering lunch for a lunch and learn in the office, consider sending distributed employees gift cards or letting them expense whatever mealtime it is in their time zone during that meeting.

Use tech to enable communication

If you’re going to the trouble of making a meeting work across multiple time zones, you want to make sure you’re getting as much out of the face time as possible, so people need to be able to see and hear each other clearly.

Teams can help enable distributed employees by providing a discretionary budget for tech like noise-canceling headphones, microphones, high-quality laptops with cameras, and high-speed Internet access. Having the right kind of gear empowers remote employees to actively participate in the conversation—to literally be seen and heard.

In the meeting room itself, participants need to ensure that remote employees have the opportunity to see and hear everything that’s happening so that they can stay engaged and contribute to the conversation. Traditional conference room cameras that give a bird’s eye view of the meeting room make it hard for folks dialing in to feel like they’re really there: the benefits of an in-person conversation like side conversations, tone, and body language easily get lost. Try a tool like The Meeting Owl, a 360° smart conference camera that auto-focuses on whoever is speaking in the room, or ask employees to respect a one-person one-camera rule so that everyone is dialing into a meeting on equal footing.

Make face time fun

Coordinating across time zones might be tough, but it’s worth making the effort not just for work-related conversations but for fun. In any work environment building relationships fosters trust, increases collaboration, and raises productivity—but it’s especially important for remote teams. Social relationships with colleagues not only combats isolation, but it decreases barriers to asking questions, getting help, and taking risks that are crucial to growth.

Make time for teammates to be grabbing virtual coffees one-on-one or in small groups, and set aside time for team-wide activities like online game nights. If your team is partially co-located and partially remote, encourage HQ to provide a dial-in for events like a holiday party or quarterly socials. You can even take your Meeting Owl to happy hour like the Owl Labs team. Either way, just make sure you’re sending a special treat like a basket of cookies to remote employees, or give them a budget to buy their own beer so they feel like they’re part of the occasion.

Asynchronous Communication

The reality of working across time zones is that much of your communication as a team will be asynchronous—and that’s not a bad thing. After years of consulting for remote teams, Jevin points out that there are myriad benefits: people can batch their work so they can sink deeply into a task, they can work during hours when they’re most effective, and less time is spent wasted on unnecessary meetings. There is an art to asynchronous communication, though.

Set and communicate working hours

One of the first and easiest things you can do to make asynchronous communication smooth is to set your working hours, and to make those hours easily discoverable to your teammates. Working hours are a good visual reference for coworkers who can tell at a glance whether it’s okay to book an empty slot for a meeting, when it’s appropriate to reach out to you for something, and why they might not be hearing back from you for a few hours. Some apps like Google Calendars even serve a warning if you inadvertently try to book something outside of working hours.

Don’t stop at your calendar: your instant messaging platform is also an important place to indicate when and how you’ll be working. Apps like Slack not only allow you to add an informative status (like ? to indicate it’s lunchtime), but they allow you to set up a Do Not Disturb schedule so that you won’t receive notifications at all during off hours.

Once everyone’s set and communicated their working hours, make sure you’re respecting them! This respect is so key to maintaining work-life balance across time zones, and making sure that everyone is communicating in a productive way.

Be explicit about expectations and urgency

Setting expectations for communication is one of the biggest and most impactful things you can do to reduce frustration for asynchronous communication at every stage of the process.

For example, if someone sends you a request for a deliverable or feedback:

  • Acknowledge receipt: “Thanks for sending this over! I got it”
  • Set a timeline for response if you’re not able to get to it right away: “I’m working on something else at the moment,” or “I’m just about to sign off for the day, but I’ll be able to get a response to you by tomorrow morning.”
  • If you won’t be able to meet the original deadline you communicated (it happens!), proactively re-adjust expectations by checking in with them: “Hey, something came up, but I’m working on this right now and will be able to get back to you in an hour.”

On the flip side, if you’re asking colleagues for deliverables or feedback:

  • Think about their time zones and working hours, and factor that into setting a reasonable deadline for when you’d like to hear from them
  • Make a request, and communicate the urgency or timeline clearly: “I know it’s nighttime for you – when you have a chance tomorrow morning would you mind looking this over? I’d love to have your feedback by the time I sign on at noon your time.”
  • As you’re setting these expectations, anticipate needs or questions and try to answer them upfront so that the recipient doesn’t wind up waiting for your next availability to clarify.
Explain clearly through screen capture and video

When you can’t hop on a video meeting and need to send something to a coworker in a different timezone, your first instinct might be to use email or an instant messaging tool to share your question or request with them. If the issue is complex or there are dependencies involved, you might find yourself drafting a paragraph (or two) and editing your message for clarity and tone that can get lost in translation.

In these cases, it can be easier and more effective to record a quick screen capture or video explanation using tools like Soapbox, Loom, Vidyard, or Veed to provide the context and color of an in-person meeting when your team members logs back online in their time zone. That way, they’ll be able to keep the project moving along once they’re back online, or have enough information to know a face-to-face meeting is needed.

Create internal wikis

One-off videos and screen captures shouldn’t be the only place that teammates can turn for information and context in real time. Building an internal wiki that documents best practices and processes is critical, and there are a world of tools out there to help including Notion, Confluence, and even Google Drive.

Wikis aren’t just for documentation: they can also be used for sharing everything from meeting notes to project plans, and for gathering feedback and creating consensus across time zones. By creating a wiki, you’ll have the benefit of creating transparency while also encouraging a flow of feedback and ideas on a rolling basis.

Use instant messaging tools (wisely)

The name “instant” suggest live synchronous communication, but asynchronous communication is still a big part of using instant messaging tools like Slack, MS Teams, and Flock.

Between different time zones, dentist appointments, and vacations, people within your team will need to play catch up using your instant messaging platform every day, making it an important tool to use wisely.

  • Try pinning important messages make it easy for team members to sort through a mountain of messages to see what content is most important for them to catch up on.
  • “Remind me” nudges make it easy for you to keep an eye on messages that are incoming during your off-hours so you make sure to reply to messages that come in the next time you’re online.
  • Use your instant messaging platform for internal communication as much as possible. Having conversations in public forums builds visibility, which ensures that no one is out of the loop even if they’re not awake when a decision is being made.

Thanks to Sophia and Jevin for their contributions. Did we miss anything? If you have a tool or tactic we missed, get in touch.