5 Tips to Manage a Team Across Multiple Time Zones
In Harvard Business Review, Donna Flynn, an executive at office furniture company Steelcase, offers her global company's best practices. "At Steelcase, we all understand that the rhythm of a global team is not a perfect 9-5 melody," she writes. "But understanding something can be very different from living it. My team has grown increasingly distributed across multiple time zones and regions of the world over the last couple of years, and we have learned, through experience and experimentation, a few ways to leverage the value of a global team while also minimizing the pain and disruption it can create for us as individuals."
Below, check out Flynn's five tips to manage your global team.
1. Don't try to work 24/7
No matter how much you brag that you can work on two hours of sleep, managing a global team is not a competition to see who can work the longest. Flynn advises to "share the burden of 24/7" across the company and not favor your time zone. "Time separation on a global team presents one of the biggest physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. Despite all our 'understanding' of being a global team, we used to always privilege Grand Rapids [U.S. Eastern Time] in our meeting schedule and make our Asia team members stay up late," she says. "Several months ago, we started a rotating meeting schedule. Every month, each team member now has one evening, one midday, and one early-morning meeting, and misses one meeting that falls in the middle of their night. No team member is expected to attend a team meeting between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m."
2. Create a consistent schedule
It's your job to make sure meeting times are consistent, to help the remote employees connect with the group. "Serendipitous encounters with colleagues around the world are still limited with our current technologies," Flynn writes. "We have learned that having consistent meetings where people can connect in both formal and informal ways is critical for fostering team cohesion. Our team has weekly meetings to provide this structure--and we make them long enough to allow for technology connection hiccups, formal sharing of project work, and some time for catching up on vacations, travel experiences, or life-stage celebrations like engagements or new babies." Steelcase is also working on a virtual social hour where everyone around the world is invited for breakfast, lunch, or cocktails, depending on his or her time zone.
3. Stay abreast of new tools
It's also important to be on the lookout for new collaboration tools. "The tools available to distributed teams today aren't perfect," Flynn says. "There is no one technology that does everything we need, so we use many of them for different purposes--including Google Drive, Dropbox, Spark, and Murally. We have fully adopted Murally [a digital, highly visual sticky-note canvas] as a team in the last year, and it has dramatically improved our team's collaboration." Flynn says. She explains that her team is still hunting for the best videoconference platform--Group Skype and Google Hangout are too unstable, whereas GoToMeeting offers greater stability but allows only six video feeds. With a team of 10-plus people, Flynn says, "it takes a lot of patience and flexibility to use these tools effectively, and adaptability in swapping out tools in the moment as needed--such as dropping an unstable video connection and switching to conference call because the bandwidth in Hong Kong is experiencing latency," she says.
4. Be aware of those outside the room
You need to pay extra attention to employees connecting via phone or video. "At Steelcase, we talk a lot about the concept of 'presence disparity,'" Flynn says. "In meetings that bring people together via different communication channels, individual 'presences' don't necessarily have the same weight in the conversation. For example, people in the same room are more likely to talk to each other and forget about the person on the video screen and the person on the speakerphone." So, don't succumb to privileging the physically present. "The most powerful tool for this is awareness--remember the value that your colleagues around the world bring to the table and honor them with consistent inclusion in the conversation. Practice eye contact with people on video, gently pause a passionate conversation in the room and ask the remote participants to chime in, or experiment with equalizing presence by having everyone call in to the videoconference or conference call individually."
5. Invest in airfare
Flynn says cohesion is an important aspect to a global team. "No tool can replace being together in the same room," she writes. "I bring my globally dispersed team together twice a year for workshops, which have proven invaluable for renewing personal ties, building trust, and having unmediated and embodied experiences together. I have three rules for these workshops: We should build something together, we should learn something together, and we should have plenty of informal, social time. I also use these times for us to engage in team strategic discussions or decision making, since it's much more effective to reach alignment around complex issues when we are in the same room."