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How Our Remote Team Manages Collaboration Across 9 Time Zones

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Being spread across the world has its pros and cons. Here’s how we deal with it.

Last Tuesday, I was getting ready to wind down for the night, and I opened up Slack one final time to check for anything that needed my attention.

What I saw, at almost 10:00 P.M., was one of my teammates getting started for the day, and another signing off.

With a remote team spread across the globe, this isn’t unusual; as every day ends somewhere, a day begins somewhere else.

But it got me thinking: I’ve written a lot about how we hire for a remote team and how we collaborate as a remote team, but I haven’t shared much about how we deal with the fact that we’re scattered over nearly a dozen time zones.

It’s an issue that presents both pros and cons for a remote team, and we’ve definitely had to work to address it for productivity, collaboration and culture.

The Pros and Cons of Working Across Time Zones

Perhaps the most significant pro and con are the most obvious ones.

On the plus side, your company essentially gets a 24-hour workday; team members working on something at 5PM can hand it off to somebody starting their day, and the project continues to get pushed forward, and then passed on again several hours later.

And on the minus side, it’s a lot harder to find time to collaborate, especially in cases where there’s really no overlap in traditional work hours between two time zones, like in the case of Melbourne and New York.

But this challenge has also opened the door to a positive discovery: we’ve learned that we don’t actually need to collaborate in real-time that much.

And that in many cases, real-time collaboration isn’t the best way to be productive as a team (and that real-time meetings don’t automatically equal productivity).

We’ve worked hard to improve our asynchronous collaboration⁠—more on that below⁠—and it’s paid off big time for us.

How We Manage a Team Across 9 Time Zones

After nearly five years of learning⁠—and often, stumbling⁠—there are three key “wins” that help our remote team stay productive and connected across nine different time zones:

1) Have One Time Where Everybody Meets

This is invariably going to require sacrifice for somebody, but it’s important: have one time where everyone can get together in real-time.

Some companies rotate this time. For us, it’s fixed: 10AM EST, every weekday.

There are team members that have to get up early or stay up late to make this daily meeting, but it’s a small price to pay for all of the benefits of remote work.

And it’s hugely valuable for our team.

Our 10AM check-in keeps us all on the same page, and provides very real culture benefits, too.

You can read more about our daily meeting rhythm here, but in a nutshell, the schedule goes like this:

Monday Recap Meeting — 30 Minutes

20 Minutes — Chat about weekends, personal things, anything that the group wants to discuss. This is culture time.

2 Minutes — Good news. Anybody that has good news (Groove-related or otherwise) shares it now, giving the team the chance to celebrate victories each day.

7 Minutes — Standups. Each team member shares what they accomplished the previous week, what they’re planning to work on in the coming week, and what blockers stand in their way. No more than 60 seconds per person, often less. This takes practice to be able to do well, but now that we’ve all gotten good at it, it’s an incredibly powerful way to distill the most important things that the team needs to know about.

30 Seconds — Numbers. I share the previous week’s metrics with the team.

30 Seconds — Word of the day. A fun way to put an exclamation point at the end of each meeting. Lately our word of the day has come from a random Cards Against Humanity card that Lesley pulls each day.

Tuesday–Thursday Daily Standup — 10 Minutes

2 Minutes — Good news.

7 Minutes — Standups.

30 Seconds — Numbers.

30 Seconds — Word of the day.

Friday Update — 20 Minutes

2 Minutes — Good news.

7 Minutes — Standups.

30 Seconds — Numbers.

30 Seconds — Word of the day.

10 Minutes — Lesley shares customer feedback from the week, both good and bad. This is enormously helpful in putting our customers front and center for every member of the team, and making sure that we’re all thinking about why our customers do business with us, and what we can do better.

2) Get Asynchronous Communication Right

There are two reasons that asynchronous communication is really important to get right:

Firstly, it ensures that everybody knows who is working on what, and when. This means that projects flow smoothly, things happen on time, and blockers aren’t left unaddressed.

Second, it cuts down on distractions. Every time a team member has to ping another team member on Slack to ask a question (and trigger a desktop notification), that distraction can easily take the second team member out of “the zone” for 20 minutes or more. Multiply that by a few “taps on the shoulder” each day, and you’re looking at entire work days of compromised productivity.

Ultimately, the most effective way we’ve found to keep asynchronous communication flowing is to keep it simple, and use a single project management tool.

Trello is where we track our projects. Simply put, it keeps things from slipping through the cracks.

We have two types of Trello boards:

The team Trello boards are where we put weekly and upcoming to‑do’s, as well as quarterly goals (as well as stash ideas for the following quarter).

Every Monday, team leaders (or team members) pull to‑do cards from Upcoming (and from our project boards) to This Week, so a team member’s respective board (or their team’s board) is the only board that they need to check on a day-to-day basis to see what they should be doing.

The project boards are where we track ongoing efforts like the blogs. We use them to brainstorm ideas and build our version of an editorial calendar.

These boards aren’t meant to be immediately actionable (e.g., you shouldn’t be checking these boards to see what to do next), but are meant to update when you make progress on something, or to grab to‑do’s from for the coming week.

I’ve seen dozens of ways to organize Trello boards from others who use the app, but this is what’s worked best for us so far.

3) Encourage Water Cooler Chatter

In addition to real-time video calls and asynchronous communication, we also do real-time chat in Slack.

Slack is our “headquarters.”

We use Slack to brainstorm, ask each other questions, pass files back and forth, compare notes on new releases, and much more.

And most importantly, perhaps, we use it as a virtual water cooler; a place where conversations can happen totally unrelated to work that help our team “gel” better; much in the way that going out for drinks after work can help co-located teams get to know each other better.

Rather than try to avoid off-topic banter, we encourage it in Slack, especially in those couple of hours each day when most time zones overlap; for us, that’s between 8 AM and 10 AM EST, in the hours before our daily call.

It’s when our #water-cooler Slack channel is at its most active.

3 More Tiny Tips You Should Know

These aren’t big enough to warrant their own sections, but here are three smaller tips that have been really helpful for us, and that can help you, too:

  1. World Time Buddy: To make planning meetings easy, we use World Time Buddy to find overlapping time zones when we’re trying to schedule things in advance.

    image

  2. Slack Profile: A stupid-simple tip that took me far too long to figure out. If you click “View Profile” for any team member in Slack, Slack will tell you what time it is wherever that person is located.

  3. Google Calendar: Nine different time zones means different countries, and different countries means different holidays. We have a shared Google Calendar where team members put vacations and local holidays when they won’t be working, so that we’re not left wondering why someone isn’t responding that day.

How to Apply This to Your Business

If you’re a remote team, I hope that this post has given you some ideas to help you do better work across time zones.

And if you’re not remote, I hope that you’ve come away with some tips that you can use to work with your international partners, vendors and customers.

If you’ve found any other strategies particularly useful in working across time zones, I’d love to know about them; just leave me a comment below!

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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

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