"It's a small world after all." The Disney song rings true when you run into someone at random in a city of millions, or when you cross the globe in a day. But somehow, nothing shrinks the globe like building a company with a team that's distributed across three continents.
Twice a year, the Zapier team gets together at a company retreat. We plan what we'll do next, and catch up on what's happened with our teammates over the last six months. The rest of the year, we manage to work together across seven time zones, using Slack, GoToMeeting, and some sheer effort to stay connected.
Face it: the best job for you might not be in your hometown, and you might work better when you aren't shackled to a 9-to-5 workday. And that's ok with a remote position, as long as you can manage the time shift. Your team will likely get more done, and you'll be able to provide better support for your customers—but you'll also need to figure out how to make the world feel a bit smaller.
After six years of remote work—for companies in India, Canada, Australia, and the U.S.—I've learned how to make the most of the pros and overcome the cons that crop up when the world is your office. Here are five tips that you can use to take advantage of a time shift, and six ways to tackle the most common problems that a remote teams faces.
1. Hire Around the Globe to Snag the Best Employees
2. Offer Freedom of Time and Place to Boost Productivity
3. Spread Across Time Zones to Work Around the Clock
4. Work Solo to Destroy Distractions
5. Stay Accountable to Focus on the Important Things
1. There's no Constant Collaboration, so Own Your Own Projects
2. Meetings Might be Late (or Early), so Be Flexible
3. It's Tough to Stay In Sync, so Check in With Your Team
4. You Still Need to Socialize, so Have a Virtual Water Cooler
5. Your Work Can be Overlooked, so Work in Public
6. Time Zones are Merciless so Keep Your Clocks Synced
"Letting people work remotely is about … getting access to the best people wherever they are," write Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in their book Remote: Office Not Required. Remote job board We Work Remotely says hiring a distributed team can help you "find the most qualified people in the most unexpected places."
That's music to the ears of metropolitan-based startups, like those in Silicon Valley and London fighting to hire great employees in a crowded market. As Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg wrote, "If 95% of great programmers aren't in the U.S., and an even higher percentage not in the Bay Area, set up your company to take advantage of that fact as a strength, not a weakness." But hiring from anywhere only works with one crucial element: a time shift.
It's possible to hire people around the globe and still have your whole team working 9-to-5 at your office's time zone—after all, plenty of people work night shifts—but it's not optimal.
"The problems with remote work are more apparent if the team expects remote team members to be available at company timezone rather than theirs," says Mutahhir Ali Hayat, a Pakistan-based developer who has worked on a number of remote teams. "It can quickly lead to burnout."
"It's only sensible and wise to live in an area where you can do your best work."
The freedom to work from anywhere you desire is an attractive benefit—but it's only true freedom when you can also work whenever you'd like.
"The key to remote work is living where you work best," says Neil Patel in Entrepreneur Magazine "Your environment does impact how you work. Thus, it's only sensible and wise to live in an area where you can do your best work."
Fried and Hansson offer another upside to remote work in their book on the topic. "The big transition with a distributed workforce is going from synchronous to asynchronous collaboration," they write. "Not only do we not have to be in the same spot to work together, we also don't have to work at the same time to work together."
9-to-5 isn't for everyone. Neither is Silicon Valley, or the city where your company is based. Some of us do our best work late at night—as Zapier co-founder Mike Knoop does—while others prefer to get up early and spend the late afternoons away from the desk. And while some metropolitan areas offer some lifestyle perks, other big-city issues—like cost-of-living and long commutes—will drive potential employees away.
The sun never sets on the British empire—even today—and it doesn't need to set on your company, either. Aside from the few weeks every year when we're all together at our company retreats, there's always someone at Zapier awake and working. Time zone coverage is just something that's automatically possible with remote teams.
The Zapier marketing team, for example, works from Bangkok, Portland (Maine), Omaha, Nashville, and San Francisco. That makes scheduling meetings difficult, but we can hand off work to keep the wheels turning 24/7. I can write an article during the day in Bangkok, and my teammate Joe in Portland can edit it while I sleep. By the time I wake up, I've got corrections to work on. At the same time, Danny in Omaha can begin working with a new partner during the day, and I can pick up the remaining tasks as soon as he quits work at 5 p.m.
Jon Russell, a Bangkok-based reporter for TechCrunch, says remote work is what enables their site to run a 24-hour newsroom. "When it comes to online publishing, being in different places isn't so strange," says Russell.
Marketing and reporting aren't the only jobs that benefit from a time shift. A global support team, for instance, can provide 24/7 support to your customers without forcing anyone to pull a night shift. Or, if you have system administrators around the globe, no one needs to have their sleep disrupted for emergency server issues.
"It was like having a friend in the future."
The team behind MINR, an upcoming news-discovery app for iOS devices, has found that a time-shifted team has accelerated their product development. "The good thing about [a global team] is work gets done while I sleep, so we're always working," says MINR founder Sol Weinreich, whose team is distributed between the U.S. and Israel. "I'll send instructions in the middle of the night—like 11 p.m, to 1 a.m.—and wake up in the morning with stuff delivered."
Microsoft's Internet Explorer team found success planning work around time shifts, too—even when their employees were located in offices at both locations. Scott Berkun, in his book The Year Without Pants, relates that Microsoft's U.S. and India teams worked in a system called "Follow the Sun."
"They worked the night shift while my team in Redmond worked days," Berkun says. "If I planned well, we'd find magic in going to bed frustrated by a missing puzzle piece, and waking to find it in our inbox. It was like having a friend in the future."
Keeping projects rolling 24/7 may boost your team's output, but there's something else about working at different times that might make you even more productive: silence.
"I always say I love the fact that my mornings are quiet," says Zapier developer Rob Golding, who works in the UK, a few hours ahead of the rest of the Zapier development team. Zapier support team member Lindsay Brand echoed that sentiment: "One of the benefits is the quiet time to concentrate without getting distracted by chatting to your colleagues."
Working remotely already frees you from the standard workplace distractions of parties and water cooler talk, but GIF wars in Slack and random questions can quickly distract you just as much no matter where you're working. And that's nice—we all need human interaction, and it's great that you can still get that without being in the same room.
Too much of a good thing, though, can mean getting nothing done. A time difference gives you the freedom to code or write without distraction. Then, when the rest of the team is online, you'll be more focused at what you need to discuss with them before it's time to get offline.
Teams in traditional office settings measure productivity by how long each team member spends at his or her desk (I'm only half kidding). But remote teams can fall into the "I'm online, so I'm being productive" trap, too.
A time shift, though, forces you to show what you've actually accomplished, since few others were there to see if you were logged in all day.
"A remote work environment should encourage performance—not presence," says entrepreneur Neil Patel. Then, you won't have to worry about time off and how many hours people are working. "You are simply looking for high-performers who can get stuff done."
The ability to hand off work is a productivity benefit, but it's also motivator since you know you must accomplish tasks so you can hand them off to co-workers at day's end. "It puts a little pressure on you to get your work done," says TechCrunch's Russell.
Even if you've never stepped foot in a "traditional" workplace, TV shows like "The Office" paint a grim picture: the endless meetings, random interruptions, and droning water cooler chats. Those may be exaggerated stereotypes—and traditional offices do have some redeeming qualities—but they're universal, none the less.
Remote teams need their own conventions and tools, too, to make everything flow smoothly together. Whiteboards and cork-boards are obsolete in a remote environment, and even paper calendars and analogue clocks feel archaic. As Virtuali CEO Sean Graber wrote in the Harvard Business Review, "It's important to create formal processes that simulate the informal ways we touch base when we are physically collocated."
You'll need new ways to make your work, well, work, so here are a few challenges the distributed teams at Zapier and other remote companies have faced while working remotely with a time shift, and how they overcome them.
"Hire managers of one."
Teamwork is great. But, if you're working with a time shift, you'll need to pull your own weight on the team and lead your own way. If you're always waiting for someone to tell you what to do next, and that someone's asleep while you're working, you'll never get anything done.
That's why the most crucial part of building a remote team is hiring self-directed workers—"managers of one," as the Basecamp team calls them in their book Rework.
"You want someone who's capable of building something from scratch and seeing it through. Finding these people frees the rest of your team to work more and manage less," the book explains.
Zapier's CEO Wade Foster agrees, saying that the most important tenet in running a remote team is being able to "trust people to do stuff." To make that possible, he says, "have a project you own so there's always something to jump into." That way, you'll never be waiting on the next big thing you need to do.
It might not be possible—or even desirable—for each team member to take ownership of part of your company's work, but you can break projects up in a way that everyone has their own specific area to focus on. This strategy makes your projects asynchronous, which remote developer Mutahhir Ali Hayat suggests is the best way to make remote development work out.
"Manage projects in a way that they're asynchronous," Hayat says. "That means that the remote person has a lot of autonomy and any problems that arise can be solved by either leaving messages on Slack/email or syncing up for a couple of hours one day."
That, perhaps, is the greatest reason that it's tough to add remote work—and especially a time shift—to teams with years of experience working together in an office. It's absolutely possible to do great work with a dispersed team, but you must plan work accordingly. Break things up into chunks that can be worked on individually, find time to sync back up on what's been done, and make sure each person on the team can self-direct their work. Then, you'll find that the time gap doesn't really matter.
Remote workers are not islands—you'll need time to get together as a team. Whether it's just a check-in to see how everyone's doing, or a set time to work collaboratively, there's almost no way to always work on your own.
That's good—after all, you'll still want some team interaction. But it also means you'll need to be flexible about times.
"Any remote worker knows you have to be flexible, so I feel time zone differences don't impact your remote work life too much," says Zapier's Brand, who works in Barcelona. "I'd quite happily sacrifice staying a little later or getting up a little earlier to avoid the stresses of a morning commute in rush hour traffic."
Staying up a bit late or getting up an hour earlier isn't a bad tradeoff for a job you love, but how about 2 a.m.? That's what The Year Without Pants author Berkun encountered when he worked at Automattic. "My team had hit the natural limits of space and time on planet earth," Berkun says. "For us to speak at the same time, someone would have to be miserable."
At Zapier, we encountered a similar issue with our weekly team meetings—for the marketing team, they typically occur in the mornings for U.S.-based team members and at 10 p.m. for me in Bangkok. When daylight saving time went into effect, though, suddenly I was looking at an 11 p.m.-midnight meeting.
6:30 a.m. Bangkok time—and late afternoon/early evening U.S. time—turned out to be our winter solution. Both times have worked out for us, but they've forced each of us to be a bit flexible.
"I'd quite happily stay a little later or get up a little earlier to avoid the stresses of a morning commute"
It doesn't need to be terrible: just try to limit long meetings so you're not straining someone's schedule. And if you're joining a team from far away, be prepared to be the most flexible one.
It might even work out great for you, if you like to work non-traditional hours anyhow. Software engineer Kevin Furbish found this to be true about his remote team at Intuit. "Many of us tend to work crazy hours, which mitigates being in different time zones."
But even still, if you want to make a distributed team work, you need to accept a time shift. "I'll take phone calls late in the evening from folks that don't realize I'm on the east coast and consider that part of the job for someone working remotely in a different time zone," Furbish says.
Planning meetings across time zones might sound so painful that you'd rather just never have meetings—but don't do that either.
Marketer Belle Beth Cooper, writing about working remotely on the Buffer team says that "it's important to check in before you start your workday and make sure you're on the same page as everyone else." You might be a "manager of one," but if you're going to hand off projects across time zones, you'll need to stay in touch.
At Zapier, we stay connected with our team in a number of ways. We post thoughts and updates about team projects on Slack, regardless of who's online. Plus, each department has a weekly video call to map out that week's work, and every Thursday we'll have an all-hands-on-deck call in order to get everyone together.
Every employee is also assigned a random "pair partner" each week— that means we'll jump on a call with one of our colleagues just see how things are going, and perhaps work together on a cross-team project.
"Check in before you start your workday and make sure you're on the same page as everyone else."
The Couchsurfing team has a similar schedule to make sure everyone's connected. "We have a bi-monthly full company meeting to make sure we all know we still exist," writes designer Ben Hanna. "You may not need to do this, but for us it is good to hear voices we may not interact with on a daily basis." The Couchsurfing team also has "one-on-one meetings, conversations and project management meetings to keep everyone on task," just as our team does.
If you have a large distributed team, you might not need to try so hard to stay connected. Berkun found this out while working at Automattic. "Since there are people working from nearly every time zone in the world, there was always someone online to help with a problem or joke around with when you're working," he wrote in his book.
Even still, odds are you'll be working with someone who's not online at the same time as you. For that, be sure to try a bit harder to stay in touch. It's worth it.
FaceTime and Skype are great for quick one-to-one calls, Google Hangouts are great for team meetings and broadcasted meetings, and GoToMeeting is still the best tool we've found for getting a huge team on a call together. You might even want to get a Twilio number so your teammates can call you without an international call. Whatever works best for your team, just put the effort into staying connected.
Staying in touch with everyone is easy nowadays. You can work at opposite times from the rest of your team, and still join in on all the office banter. The trick is a team chat app—for us, that's Slack.
"One of the sad parts of working at a different time to the majority of your team is missing out on all the work chatter, but with tools like Slack, it's easy to catch up on that and get involved a little later," explained Zapier's Brand.
It's impossible to overstate how crucial Slack—a team chat app that makes it easy to search through all of your team's messages—is to remote teams. It's the one app that comes up in nearly every discussion of how to make remote teams work. Even reporters from The New York Times have found that Slack helps them stay connected to their newsroom while away on assignments.
"One danger of my job, as a columnist who works in California, is a feeling of disconnection from the mother ship in New York," wrote technology columnist Farhad Manjoo. "Using Slack, I can peer into discussions that would never have been accessible to me. I can see how the producers and editors who are handling my column are discussing how to present it, and how the team overseeing the home page is thinking about my work."
"I have a feeling of intimacy with co-workers on the other side of the country that is almost fun. That's a big deal, for a job."
The ability to see what others are saying not only gives you insight to how others are working—something you might glean by working together—but it also enables the more fun aspects of working in a team. "What's more, I have a feeling of intimacy with co-workers on the other side of the country that is almost fun," Manjoo says. "That's a big deal, for a job."
No matter how independently you can work, and how hard you try to stay connected, you won't be in the flow of what everyone's doing unless you have a team chat tool. "At TechCrunch and The Next Web, having a central point of contact is critical," says Russell. "Tools like Slack, Convo and HipChat make that possible in a way that it never really was a few years ago."
It doesn't have to be Slack—it could be HipChat, Campfire, your own IRC server, or any of the other great team chat apps out there. Just be sure it fits this description:
It's not enough to use Slack as your virtual watercooler. To work effectively with a time shift, you'll also need to work in public. In other words, communicate, and make sure everyone knows what you're working on.
Write what you've done that day, share where you're hung up on a project, and ping others with ideas. Developers, perhaps, have it the easiest with code comments and pull requests, but everyone should share what's happening in their own "manager of one" domain.
David Fullerton had to overcome the communication hurdle when he was growing the Stack Exchange team. "When there were 4 people, everyone knew everything. When there are 75 people that no longer scales,"he says. "So you have to work out your channels of communication, and that's doubly true with remote workers because you can't rely on overheard conversations or gossip to spread the word. You have to force yourself to be explicit in communication."
At Zapier, we've formalized communications about what we're working on with two things: a Minutes document from each of our team meetings that outlines our goals for each week, and a Friday Update post that covers which of those goals we actually accomplished. Each of those live in Async—an in-house tool that gives everyone a set place to write anything they need to share with the entire team, and forces us to "work in public."
"You have to force yourself to be explicit in communication."
Sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable, or just to work alongside you. Jeff Atwood found that when he started Stack Overflow, programming on his own turned into a lonely job.
"I was coding alone," he says. "Really alone. One guy working all by yourself alone. This didn't work at all for me. I was unmoored, directionless, suffering from analysis paralysis, and barely able to get motivated enough to write even a few lines of code."
His solution was to have a coding partner, someone he'd bounce ideas off of and check in with about project progress. Work together, even if there is a time gap, and you'll find that the old adage "two are better than one" is still true.
GMT—otherwise known as UTC—is a beautiful thing. It's the "mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London" according to Wikipedia, and it's what every time zone is based on. If it's midnight in London (GMT), then it's 7 a.m. in Bangkok (GMT+7) and 8 p.m. the previous day in New York (GMT-4).
If you travel the world frequently, knowing which a time zone you're in relative to GMT is crucial—and it's also important if you're working with a distributed team. Knowing the difference between Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time alone isn't enough anymore. You'll need to know the new year starts in Japan, which times of the day you're colleague in London will be awake, and the times you're most likely to get support tickets from your Australian customers.
It's not actually that hard, as long as you think about it relative to GMT/UTC. Know how many hours you are from GMT, and then it's simple to know what time it is in any other time zone. And keep your brain thinking in the time zone where most of your team is located, or the time zone you use to schedule content and plan releases. Don't just assume that since you're "in the future" compared to the rest of your team that you have more time—I've fallen into that fallacy far too often.
Beyond those mental tricks, you'll want to rely on your apps to prevent mishaps. Sometimes, they can be so clever, you'll never have to worry about anything.
Slack, for instance, lists each team member's time zone, how many hours that is from your local time, and that person's current local time whenever you click their name. That's an easy way to double-check before expecting an immediate reply. Or, if you attempt to message everyone in a group, Slack lets you know it's late for some people before you hit "send."
Other apps don't make it so easy, though. Trello, for instance, stores deadlines in UTC and then displays their due date and time based on your current timezone. That made articles on our schedule look like they were due a day later for me in Bangkok. To overcome this limitation, we worked to find a time to schedule tasks where the due day would be the same for all.
You might find that you need to tweak some things—say, using the same time zone settings in everyone's apps—to make it all look correct, but it's worth the time. After all, a broken schedule can make your remote team's work fall apart entirely .
Beyond that, if you're still having trouble tracking time and scheduling meetings with your whole team, here are some tools that have come in handy for us:
Google really does know everything. If you search for the current time in most major cities around the world, you'll get the answer right at the top of your results. More recently, Google added a time calculator to search so you can look up what time it will be in a certain place.
That might not be enough to schedule meetings across a number of time zones, but it's a quick way to figure out if you're ok to call your boss at 6 p.m.
Google Calendar looks basic at first glance, but it's packed with features that make it great for remote teams—or really any team. You can set your own time zone, and save the time zones you work with most to have an easy way to switch between them.
Then, if you want another easy way to know what time it is everywhere your team's located, you can turn on the World clock in the Calendar Labs settings. It's a simple, text-based world clock provides an at-a-glance update.
For an even simpler way to see what time it is around the world, check out Every Time Zone from the Freckle team. It shows the current time in your own city, along with others in popular time zones around the world.
Drag the second indicator to the time you want to have a meeting, and you'll see what time that'll be in cities around the globe. It's not a perfect way to schedule, but is a good way to get a feel for international time differences.
TimeandDate.com's World Clock Meeting Planner won't win any design awards, but it makes time shift scheduling straightforward. You pick the cities where everyone lives, and the date for your meeting, and it'll show in green, yellow, and red the times that are best, not too bad, and terrible for everyone.
You might find that there's no perfect time for your team, but at least you'll find options that aren't excruciating. Plus, you can add the correct time to your calendar in just a click, if you'd like.
There are more time zone tools at TimeandDate.com, too, so be sure to check it out if you want to find local times around the world for your event, convert times for any location, and more.
Prefer something more eye-catching? Then World Meeting Time might be more your style. Just drag placeholders to the spots on the map where your team lives, enter when you want to hold the meeting, and see what time that'll be locally for everyone before sending invites.
It's not as simple to pick the perfect time here, but it's easy to spot where everyone lives and send group meeting invites. And with the new World Meeting Time Pro, you can save your guests and regular meetings to re-schedule meetings with your team easily, and sync everything with Google Calendar.
Remote working isn't automatically a freer way to work—it can be just as stressful as any 9-to-5 job. Teach your remote team to be flexible about time, though, and everyone's lives will be easier. Plus, you'll be able to hire the best people from anywhere around the globe.
That might mean you can move to a city where it's easier to start a family, or extend your "vacation" to a few months on the beach each year. You might even find time to visit some of the incredible cities on Nomad List while still contributing your all to your team.
Having trouble staying focused, or feeling like you might be getting burned out while working remotely? In the next chapter, we'll look at tips from Zapier and 22 other teams about how to avoid burnout while working remotely.
Written by Zapier content marketer Matthew Guay
Image Credits: World clocks photo by Leoplus on Flickr. Always open photo by Jeremy Brooks. Quiet photo by José María Pérez Nuñez. Time zone clocks photo by Alexei & Verne Stakhanov. Clock photo by Matthew Guay.
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