There are many features of the world that I simply cannot wrap my head around, and one of these has always been time zones.
In a few weeks, the entire Buffer team will meet up to work and have fun together for a week in Sydney, Australia, and I can’t believe that I’ll get on a plane Thursday night and not arrive there until Saturday morning. Crazy!
In addition to confounding my brain, time zones also provide some fun and interesting challenges when it comes to how we all work together at Buffer as a fully remote, distributed team.
Naturally, this fact changes the way we work just a bit. And as our team grows and changes, we sometimes have to change and renegotiate the way we work through time zones.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve noticed that seem to be the most effective for us in working across multiple time zones. Maybe they’ll help your remote team, too!
Awareness of others’ time zones
Possibly the simplest tip of all is also the one that can be the hardest to keep top of mind. Typically, we try to be mindful of what time it is for others when we use synchronous communication like video or Hipchat. This keeps us from asking a teammate to dive into a brand-new project if they’re just about to jump off for their evening, for example.
The tool shown above is one that our awesome developer Dan made just for Buffer, and it helps us all a ton to know what’s going on with any teammate at a glance. (If you’re a developer yourself and want something similar, he’s made the code available on Github).
Another handy one, especially if you’re planning a meeting across time zones, is Every Time Zone, which allows you to toggle around to see what the time of your choosing is across every time zone.
World Time Buddy works similarly. In this one, you can type in specific places and time zones to get exact times for those who may not be in the major cities.
Using these tools to keep time zones top of mind makes sure that all team members have an equal opportunity to work smarter, not harder, and that they can engage or disengage when they want.
Prioritizing asynchronous communication
We use a variety of tools at Buffer, many of which we’ve blogged about before. For synchronous, everyone-at-the-same-time communication, we use Hipchat for written chats and Sqwiggle for video chats.
We also have a lot of tools for asynchronous, everyone-at-their-own-pace communication, including email, Trello and Hackpad. In these tools, we can log what we’ve done, what we’re doing or questions and comments we have and know that other team members can read and comment later on their own schedule.
One of our current challenges as a team is to become slightly less reliant on our synchronous tools and prioritize asynchronous communication a bit more.
Here’s Buffer co-founder Leo talking a bit about why asynchronous communication is helpful for us:
As we’ve been working on this one, Sunil recently sent the team a great reminder and mentioned another benefit of asynchronous communication that’s worth mentioning—greater focus on tasks throughout the day.
“Perhaps more asynchronous communication may help work a bit better in terms of routines, too. I know personally, I sometimes like to get stuck in at various points in my day for focused work without too many distractions. But after that I like to switch out to focus on emails/hackpads etc. Scheduled synchronous communication like planned video calls/sync ups (over ad hoc ones) allow me to better mentally prepare.”
Meeting in smaller groups
Although we prioritize asynchronous communication, it’s still awesome when we can talk face-to-face with teammates.
We have a few standing methods of making sure these types of communication happen often, including the daily pair call and weekly mastermind chats. These chats are normally only 2-3 people maximum, so more often than not it’s possible to find a time that works for everyone across multiple time zones.
And although it’s not totally unheard of to see a pickup meeting come together in Hipchat, we’re trying harder to make sure to schedule a specific time in advance when we need to communicate synchronously so we can all plan for it.
Sometimes it simply isn’t possible for all the members of a team or task force to get together at once. Those of us at Buffer who regularly work in customer support through Twitter and email have come up with a neat way of handling that challenge, creating something like a daily rolling meeting. Here’s a look at how that comes together across the globe.
Sharing travel plans and schedule changes
When you’re not in the same place with your teammates, you don’t have set work hours, and you have no one to report to, one thing that becomes really important seems to be frequent, clear communication.
Luckily, clarity is one of Buffer’s 10 core values, which means this is one element we’re constantly practicing and working on improving.
We’re constantly sharing what’s going on with our lives and schedules, whether we’re popping out to grab some tacos at lunch or spending the next 4 months in Costa Rica.
Not only does this help the rest of the team to be aware of any changes they might need to know, it also has the added benefit of helping us all feel more connected to one another as we share plans and details of our lives. Not to mention, we wind up collecting some stellar travel tips from our digital nomad teammates!
We’ve been exploring bring more of our whole selves to work in line with the values discussed in the influential-to-Buffer book Reinventing Organizations, and this form of communication feels very in line with the wholeness concept.
Getting together regularly in one place
And there’s also something magical about getting together all in one place once in a while. Serendipitous conversations lead to new discoveries and ideas. We can learn from one another in one room. And we also have a ton of fun!
That’s why the last important strategy that works for us as a remote team is to get together in person often. At Buffer, we meet somewhere in the world every 5 months for a company-wide work (and some play!) retreat. We’ll work together throughout the week and enjoy some bonding time with fun group activities, too. In Cape Town, we went on a safari and in New York, we took a boat cruise:
Most recently we’ve added a voluntary charitable activity and a community meetup to the itinerary, too. They’re pretty action-packed trips!
Here’s how Joel describes the importance of these retreats:
“Once you return home (Buffer team members are spread all across the globe), the conversations you have with team members are enhanced. You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently. This changes things, and is why we’ve found retreats to be not only a fun part of our culture, but an absolute necessity.”
If you’ve ever worked in a remote or distributed team that dealt with time differences, we’d love any strategies or advice that helps you work across multiple time zones! Share them with us in the comments!