Author: Şahap DAYIBAŞ, Technical Team Leader / Embedded Systems
Let’s continue to talk about our blog series “Remote Teams in an Era of Agile”. What I have mentioned in my previous blog post was “Technical Excellence and Agility”. Today, I would like to continue with the time zone challenge within international teams working across different time zones.
An international team including remote professionals from different countries has added incredible diversity, accessibility, and opportunity to the companies. However, managing a virtual team across different time zones can be very challenging despite of its advantages. Virtual teams can feel disconnected and isolated if this situation is not managed strategically. Being a part of a silent team that does not communicate over chat, emails, video conferences or other tools, can endanger the ability to collaborate and work together efficiently. I have tried to share some best practices that are experienced during my professional life working in an international team for years. I hope that these tips will help you to collaborate effectively and resolve your time zone challenges.
Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication
Traditional ways of communicating are impossible or no longer effective due to the changing working environment and the way of doing work. Leaders must establish new forms of communication to effectively share information through their organizations. Creating effective and focused communication requires the smart use of communication tools. In addition to these, understanding the different types of communication and how you can balance the usage of them.
Synchronous communication is a communication type with the expectation of an immediate response. Synchronous communication is perfect when you need answers to a question right away. It includes every form of communication that happens in real-time where responses occur immediately. Examples of synchronous communication include phone calls, instant messaging, video conferences and face-to-face conversations.
On the other hand, asynchronous communication includes every form of communication that doesn’t happen in real-time, means that responses can occur intermittently. Examples of asynchronous communication include leaving a voicemail message or a video recording instead of giving a phone call or sending an email rather than walking to your colleague’s desk. This type of communication allows team members to address their tasks and to catch up on work on their timelines. Basically, if the response time is not so critical, asynchronous communication can be preferable. Asynchronous communication has emerged as the preferred method for teams working across geographies and time zones.
Let’s break down some important best practices for getting the most out of asynchronous communication on remote teams.
Over-communication: Since asynchronous communication is slower and more intermittent than synchronous communication, it needs to be more detailed to avoid losing time between unclear messages. For example, when making a request, provide as much upfront information as possible so that your teammates have all the details that they may need when they read your message in their respective time zone. Surely, you do not have to give all the details, but you should at least try to give a summary of the core context. This detailed information might include being specific with date and times, giving comprehensive context such as references or links to avoid making assumptions rather than focusing on what is known. Another hint about over-communication is that if someone asks something and you don’t have the answer yet, it is a good and efficient practice to send a message acknowledging the question and letting them know when you will be able to look at it.
Visualization: Communication does not have to be completely verbal. Video or visual diagrams can be an effective form of asynchronous communication. Agile project management tools such as scrum boards and burndown charts, images to supplement your presentations or any diagrams about a technical topic might be good examples of visualization for more effective and efficient communication. This keeps everyone on the same page and nimble via sharing common goals among the team.
Which type of communication should I choose: Synchronous or Asynchronous?
Workplace communication has undergone a significant evolution in recent and each of these different types of communication have its place in a distributed setting alongside that evolution. However, there is an ideal balance of communication in a remote team: mostly asynchronous, with some synchronous communication. Maintaining this ratio ensures you to avoid issues with synchronous communication and gain all the benefits of asynchronous communication. Building a remote company that is asynchronous first will be the key to your success as a distributed team. If you are still uncertain about using either synchronous or asynchronous communication, here are some basic questions to ask yourself which may help you to choose one of them.
- Is this urgent enough to interrupt others’ work?
- Do I need an answer right now?
- Does my colleague need this information at this moment?
Time zone rules: Even though you are having aware of others’ time zones, setting one official time zone for your project can help people prevent confusion. Setting meetings according to your time zone leaves everyone else scrambling to translate it to their time zones. Agreeing in using an official time zone means everyone will set and communicate meetings or deadlines with the same time zone, regardless of where teams are located. This can make it easier for remote team members to know the time difference for their location.
Limited meetings: Meetings are an indispensable way of doing business nowadays and more importantly, they are of the essence when it comes to working remotely from different time zones. However, they might also be unproductive or unfocused commonly. This also ends up with distraction from other work to be done. So, here are some preliminary questions whenever you need to organize a meeting. These questions might inspire you to take some upfront actions.
- Is this meeting really necessary?
- How long should the meeting last?
- How much of the meeting can be done asynchronously?
- How often should you meet?
Minimum participants: Make sure that only the people who need to be there are invited unless you do not need to invite a large group of people such as an all-hands meeting or informal virtual room. If too many people attend, you may end up with people who don’t need to be there who will bring upside issues that have nothing to do with what you are trying to accomplish. Besides, attending a meeting causes the attendees to spend extra time within the daily routines.
Regular meetings: It is highly possible that people can feel unapparent and alone when their working hours don’t overlap significantly with their colleagues. Committing to regular meetings can be an effective practice to bring employees together and to assure engagement among the team.
Timeboxing: One of the most important challenges for meetings is adhering to a timebox. A timebox is a previously agreed period of time during which a person or a team works towards the completion of shared common goals. Keeping meetings to a certain amount of time helps to ensure the most relevant conversations are being had and everyone is staying focused. This also contributes to having shared understandings and known outputs. If people know that there is a timebox, it is highly possible that they can try to do their best to contribute as valuable as possible.
Staying flexible & fair: Working across time zones requires considering different time zones when organizing a meeting if the participants work from remote locations. The difficulty of setting a meeting that fits everyone’s time zone is inevitable. However, what you can do is to be more sensitive about being equitable for everyone and you should try to do your best to be mindful. One of the best things you can do is to ask for your team’s feedback and if this is still not helpful then you can try to rotate the times periodically.
Availability & Awareness
If you work within an international team and have some people working from different countries, this means that they have different cultures and holidays as a matter of course. In the meantime, this cultural diversity also adds some more complexity to the communication and collaboration among the team. The best thing to do at this point is to find a way to raise awareness in the team and make people aware of the different time zones and cultures. Taking the advantage of time zone management tools can be the best option here, so that you can know the current times for your remote colleagues before initiating a conversation. The other common problem with different time zones is having different off days which varies from culture to culture. That situation will be a problem especially if you are assumed to be working in a big and diverse team. The efficient solution to this problem can be having a shared calendar that is always kept up to date by the whole team to increase transparency and to simplify the communication.