Remote work has become a necessity amid the pandemic and some companies are even keeping their workforces remote indefinitely. In some ways, this affords more flexibility for work location than ever.
Before the peak of the pandemic, I decided to travel around the world for a year. My employer generously allowed me to keep working and transition from my full-time analytics engineer position to a part-time remote one while traveling. Even though I’m not traveling much these days, I’m working for a US-based company while living in New Zealand. This has introduced some challenges, being in a different time zone from the team.
Working in different time zones doesn’t have to be a hindrance. It actually can be a rewarding experience. Having employees online around the clock is one of the major benefits of having a globally-distributed workforce. As long as there is mutual respect for each other’s time and energy, it’s certainly possible to be communicative and productive as a team.
Align expectations for working in different time zones in a statement of work
This can come in the form of a simple bulleted list or a formal document signed by you and company leadership. Either way, having clear roles and responsibilities eliminates confusion about individual priorities. Preparing a roadmap for teamwide quarterly or annual goals can provide a framework for individual contributor focus areas. These could include:
- Handling data load and reporting issues overnight
- Focusing on maintaining a specific code repository
- Spearheading projects with less time sensitivity and on an ad-hoc basis
If you are transitioning from a full-time position to a part-time role abroad, it will help to lay out any necessary workflow adjustments. Some examples of these may include:
- Maintaining a consistent schedule for online availability. (For example, making sure to work from 9 a.m. to 1p.m. NZDT, Tuesday to Friday, which translates to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. EST.)
- Attending regular team check-ins over Zoom.
Prepare all the tools necessary to work effectively in different time zones
Having the right tools at your disposal is critical for computationally-expensive data engineering, data analysis, and machine learning projects. If possible, have the IT department help set you up with appropriate hardware and software that can handle heavy-duty tasks. Ensure that you have the same development environments as your teammates so you can replicate work without the obstacle of having incongruous systems. It’s also important to consider whether to install security software, password managers, and secure document storage systems required by the company. For extra security for proprietary data, use a VPN while working.
Because you could be thousands of miles away from your employer, you may not have immediate access to tech support. Therefore, you have some responsibility to know the basics of how to care for your computer and maintain software versions. You also would be responsible for having reliable access to the internet no matter where you are.
Schedule times for meetings and calls fairly across the team
Depending on where everyone on the team is located, sometimes there’s only a small window, as little as a few hours, where live communication with everyone is possible. If you plan to regularly move from country to country, the other members of the team should know when you will be changing time zones so they can adjust schedules accordingly.
Take advantage of your calendar application to ensure that everyone knows the correct time to meet. For instance, Google Calendar has time zone tools that allow you to display a secondary time zone on events and a world clock to display the current times in different parts of the world. Online tools such as timeanddate.com can also help straighten out potentially complex time differences across hemispheres.
No one can be available at all hours of the day across different time zones. So, employers should be empathetic around that. Each person on the team deserves fair meeting times. So, don’t hesitate to set boundaries, and only accept meetings during reasonable working hours. Even if you’re 12 hours apart, no one should feel obligated to take a meeting at 11 p.m. or 6 a.m. Carefully evaluate what is immediately important and what can wait for the following day. Whether it’s a few hours or one full day, you can set a standard for how much advance notice is reasonable for a notification about urgent matters.
Encourage focused work by using communication tools judiciously
With such a variety of communication channels at our disposal, it’s easy to reach our coworkers at any time. However, it’s important to be respectful of other’s time and use appropriate communication channels when necessary. This, of course, depends on personal preference. Different communication options can work for you. To reduce distractions, use messaging tools such as Slack during your teammates’ online hours and email while offline. Set your time zone preferences in Slack so teammates know whether it’s a reasonable time of day to reach you.
Your team may not necessarily need to collaborate in real time as often as you think. It’s common to hear something like “this meeting could have been an email.” Having fewer meetings helps keep us mindful of what is important to discuss and what should be left to uninterrupted individual work time.
Check in with your team regularly
Recurring communication is especially important for distributed teams to catch up on ongoing projects and stay on the same page. These also are great times to praise fellow teammates for their hard work.
In addition to providing internal team updates, these check-ins also can be a time to catch up on what is happening at the broader company level. This keeps the company’s objectives front of mind and provides more context for how your own work fits in.
Work discussion aside, strong teams foster a sense of inclusion and camaraderie across communication channels. Having your team living in a different hemisphere from you can be isolating. You don’t have the opportunity to have “watercooler chats” or attend impromptu, in-person happy hours. Have a laugh in a fun Slack channel or drop in on your team’s evergreen Zoom meeting room for some casual banter. My team holds an informal Zoom call at the end of each week as a space for everyone to get to know one another better by sharing things such as life updates, favorite books, or vacation photos.
Employees can become more satisfied with their jobs knowing they have the ability to work from anywhere in the world. Hopefully, these tips help provide a framework for working with a distributed team.