I have found myself having direct reports or team members in multiple time zones several times during my career. In some cases, it has just been one to three hours. In other cases, it has been six or seven hours and all the way up to a thirteen-hour time difference. Since I have worked in the Americas, in Europe, and in the Asia Pacific region, I have substantial experience in hosting and participating in team meetings in multiple time zones, both as a team member as well as a leader. When I say team meetings in multiple time zones, I am absolutely referring to remote meetings using digital tools. In some cases, the whole team is spread out and in some cases, the team members are clustered in different locations while participating in the same global meeting.
A few hours is one thing, 12 is a different story
You can host a team meeting with a time zone difference of six or seven hours pretty easily, but it sure gets tricky to have team meetings when you have one member who is six hours before you and another who is six hours behind you resulting in a twelve-hour time difference. This means the team does not share working hours at all. So, how do to host team meetings in multiple time zones like this? Here are five tips on how to lessen the blow for the people in the “wrong” time zone.
1. Accept that you will be working off-hours repeatedly if you are in a multi time zone team
Refusing to work off-hours when there are sizeable time differences will not work. It will jeopardize your relationship with the other team members as well as long time performance for all of you. Working off-hours anyway, but without really accepting it, will create frustration for you and the people involved. Imagine having to call someone or even your manager, when he or she has evening time and knowing beforehand that you will get chewed out for calling at the wrong time or that the person will be silently angry at you.. You will avoid contacting that person, even when it is truly needed. The only other option that might be for you is to wait until 2 or 3 a.m. your time and place that call which isn’t really sustainable. So, if you are unwilling to accept working off-hours now and then, simply do not accept a position where big-time differences are part of your every day!
Having the right gear can help sometimes. It’s easier to take a late video call on a tablet than on your PC for instance. ( You can read about the apps and gear I use to increase my personal productivity here: Productivity tools for Managers and Leaders.)
2. When in team meetings across time zones: Be extra respectful of other people’s time
Always remember to be respectful when it comes to other people’s time. If you just started your working day and your sitting at 9 am enjoying a cup of coffee with the whole day ahead of you, remember that it is different for other people participating in your online conference call. Don’t spend too much time chit-chatting or joking – it is not necessarily what the colleague across the globe where it is 11 pm want to spend his or her time on.
Besides this practical behavior, always remember the different time zone restrictions when you book and schedule team meetings in multiple time zones. This is especially true if a majority of the team is sitting in one single location. If that is the case, it is very easy to get stuck “in the own time zone” and forgot how difficult it might be for team members in other time zones to join. For example: If you are in Europe and have team members in Asia, then plan all these team meetings in the European morning time when it is afternoon in Asia. Never forget that an afternoon meeting in Europe means that the colleagues in Asia are missing dinner with the family and have probably already worked a whole day before the team meeting even started.
If you do have to schedule meetings outside of the normal working hours for some of you – ensure you are on time, ensure the content is important enough, and don’t reschedule last minute. Imagine if you are on another continent and you have turned down concert tickets with some friends on Wednesday evening since you have a team meeting between 7 pm and 10 pm. At 5 pm, your manager lets you know that the meeting will be postponed since the local meeting in his or her location is running over.. You would be pretty upset, right? Sacrificing your evening plans is one thing. Sacrificing them for nothing is way worse..
(Want to learn more about leadership? Then check out the leadership books I recommend.)
3. Let team members take turns suffering from the time zone problem
Let me give you an example. Let us say you have a Europe-centric team with two team members on the US east coast and one team member in Dubai. If you plan the meeting for 9-11 am on the US east coast, it will be 3-5 pm Central European Time, and the colleague in Dubai will have to spend 6-8 pm in the meeting, i.e. dinner time for most of us. If you stick with this time repeatedly, the colleague in Dubai will always give up evening time that could have been spent with the family. Instead, rotating this to start three hours earlier means that the colleagues in the US will have to get up extra early and miss breakfast with the family, but the Dubai member can spend the evening without working. In this case, the Europeans are kind of always off the hook though.. So, to conclude, take turns in working off-hours if that is a possibility. It is fairer for the team members and will not repeatedly ruin the off-time for one or a few specific team members which could be demoralizing in the long term.
4. Remaining efficient is extra important in meetings across time zones
Plan the agenda according to the circumstances you have and take team members’ different time zones into consideration. If some topics are irrelevant for the people that must join in their evening time, then deal with those topics last and let those members leave the meeting before then. This way they do not have to spend their evening on irrelevant topics. Also, spend your break and lunchtime wisely. If half the team is working in the evening time, a quick lunch in the meeting room for the people in the earlier time zone can shave valuable time of the meeting length – this will give bonus points with the team members working off-hours, believe me.
5. Avoid unnecessary team meetings
Do not have meetings for the sake of having meetings. This might be true in general, but it is even more important if you are forcing people to get up five hours earlier or spending their evening participating in the meeting. These people might feel demotivated or even angry to get their days disrupted to have to listen to information of little or no value to them.
6. Plan several meetings – each in a different time zone
If you need to have information meetings for wider audiences, consider having several meetings – each for a different remote location and fitting their time zone needs. I have been in global roles where I hosted several identical monthly information meetings for team members in different time zones throughout the same day. I literally hosted the same meeting and repeated the same content three times in one day: one meeting fitting the Americas, one fitting European time zone, and one fitting colleagues in the Asia Pacific region. This might be inefficient and inconvenient for me as a leader, but if that means that hundreds of other people do not have to work off-hours, I will score a lot of loyalty points for this effort.
Some other key items always worth pointing out are: