The pros and cons of working across time zones: What to expect when you work in a distributed company

By Matthew Guay - Last updated April 1, 2019 -

You are reading: Chapter 10 of 15

Twice a year, the Zapier team gets together at a company retreat. The rest of the year, we manage to work together across 17 time zones, using Slack, Zoom, and some sheer effort to all stay connected.

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 on a distributed team, 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 years of working remotely—for companies in India, Canada, Australia, and the U.S.—I've learned a lot. Here's a sneak peek, but keep reading for tips on how to make the most of the pros and overcome the cons that crop up when the world is your office.

5 pros of a distributed team

  1. You can hire around the globe
  2. Freedom of time and place boosts productivity
  3. There's always someone online
  4. There are fewer distractions
  5. It's easier to value output over time-in-seat

6 cons of a distributed team

  1. There's no constant collaboration
  2. Meetings might be late, or early
  3. It takes more effort to to stay in sync
  4. Socializing isn't as natural
  5. Your work can be overlooked
  6. Time zones are merciless

Pro: You can hire around the globe

"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.

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 well as companies not based near urban centers. 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 the company's time zone 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."

Pro: Freedom of time and place boosts productivity

"It's only sensible and wise to live in an area where you can do your best work."- Neil Patel, entrepreneur

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 Heinemeier 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, while others prefer to get up early and spend the late afternoons away from the desk. And while some metropolitan areas offer certain lifestyle perks, other big-city issues—like high costs-of-living—will drive potential employees away.

Pro: There's always someone online

always open

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 distributed teams.

It makes scheduling meetings difficult, but we can also hand off work to keep the wheels turning 24/7. 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.

A global support team is particularly helpful: it means we can provide 24/7 support to our 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."- Scott Berkun

Microsoft's Internet Explorer team found success planning work around time shifts. 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."

Pro: There are fewer distractions

quiet
Escape all the distractions … for real

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 Smith 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 loud music 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.

Pro: It's easier to value output over time-in-seat

clock
It's not the time that's important. It's what you do with the time.

Teams in traditional office settings sometimes measure productivity by how long each team member spends at their desk. 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.

Con: There's no constant collaboration

"Hire managers of one."- Basecamp, the company

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.

Con: Meetings might be late, or early

Google Calendar event

You'll always need some time to get together as a team. Whether it's just a team check-in or something more collaborative, meetings will always be a thing. That's good—after all, you'll still want some team interaction. But it also means you'll need to be flexible about timing.

"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 Smith. "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: it would be mid-morning for U.S. folks, and anyone in Asia ended up with late-night meetings. To adjust, we ended up alternating when meetings would happen, so it wasn't always super early or super late for the same people. Plus, we try to limit long meetings so you're not straining someone's schedule.

"I'd quite happily stay a little later or get up a little earlier to avoid the stresses of a morning commute"- Lindsay Smith

It might work out great for you, if you like to work nontraditional hours anyway. 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.

Con: It takes more effort to stay in sync

pair partners
Working out a call for a Zapier pair partner meeting

Planning meetings across time zones might sound so painful that you'd rather just never have meetings—but don't do that either.

Belle 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 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."- Belle Cooper

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.

Con: Socializing isn't as natural

Slack
Business and banter in Zapier's Slack #general channel

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 Smith.

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," writes 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."- Farhad Manjoo, New York Times reporter

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 any of the other great team chat apps out there. Just be sure it fits this description:

  • Easy to use, with mobile apps to stay in touch on the go
  • Separates discussions into groups that everyone can join
  • Archives all conversations so you can search through everything
  • Includes private chats
  • Integrates with the apps you use
  • Has fun extras like Slack's Giphy integration that lets you lighten up the mood with GIFs

Con: Your work can be overlooked

async
Async, Zapier's internal company blog

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 a Friday update post that lists our top priority for the week and what progress we made on it. 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."- David Fullerton

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.

Con: Time zones are merciless

clocks
Even your 'world clock' widgets can come in handy

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 which times of the day your colleague in London will be awake, and the times you're most likely to get support tickets from your Australian customers.

Also: 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. You can also rely on your apps to prevent mishaps.

Slack time zones
Slack's time zone warning

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 can let you know it's late for some people before you hit send.

trello time
Use workarounds to make your apps work for multiple time zones

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

Google Time Zone

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

Google Calendar

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.

Every Time Zone

every time zone

For an even simpler way to see what time it is around the world, check out Every Time Zone. 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.

World Clock Meeting Planner

world clock meeting planner

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.


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.

Go to Chapter 11!


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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