"How do you feel about working for a company based in India?"
That was an unexpected question when interviewing with a startup opening its first US office. While I knew the company has its headquarters in Mumbai, I hadn't considered I'd be working with employees there. Pre-pandemic, working on a team scattered across the world was still a rarity. How would I manage to work across different time zones, cultures, and offices?
Luckily for me, I had a team that was well-equipped for the challenge and taught me a lot along the way. Here are some lessons I learned from working with a distributed team 9.5 hours apart.
What Is A Distributed Team?
Distributed, dispersed, remote—these terms apply to teams of two or more people working in different areas, whether they're five miles or two continents apart.
There are pros and cons to distributed workforces. A pro: your team covers more waking hours of business. My teammates would begin their days at 11 AM Indian Standard Time (IST) until 9 PM IST—5:30 AM to 3:30 PM Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Our US team worked from 9 AM ET to 5 pm ET — 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM GMT.
That means our company was "awake" from 5:30 AM-9:00 PM GMT, a total of 15 hours covered in our business day. This led to better coverage in customer service, sales, engineering, and even marketing.
The downside, however, was that we had to adjust our communication based on the time of day. There's no way I'd want to send an urgent email to a coworker when it's 1:30 AM in India!
When your team works in different time zones, it's necessary to use the right systems that cater to the time difference. Your team will have to learn how to step back from instant conversation and rely on slower forms of asynchronous communication. Finding the right processes will help ease difficulties in timing, communication, and organization.
How To Manage Time Zones
The first thing you need to do is become an expert on time zones—or find a tool that does it for you. Everyone on our team used Figure it Out on our browsers to keep an eye on the time around the world. This helped prevent those urgent 1:30 AM calls and encouraged us to manage our time during our shift overlaps. It even adjusted to Daylight Saving Time—which India doesn't practice!
We set a standard that important meetings would only take place at the beginning of the day in the US/end of the day in India. This meant that no one was missing any high-priority details and nothing changed when anyone was "off the clock."
Planning And Meeting Across Time Zones
Once you have the time zones in front of you, managing meetings is easy. Sharing our email calendars and seeing everyone's availability helped us seamlessly plan meetings and 1:1s. We used tools like Zoom and Slack to keep our communication on point.
But we focused on asynchronous communication rather than prioritizing right-away responses. Async communication is, simply put, a conversation where not everyone is available at the same time. An email, for example, is an async communication: an immediate response isn't expected and people are able to communicate on their own time.
To circumvent any in-house issues, we used tools like 15Five to deliver weekly pulses to our managers, which led the direction of our 1:1s.
When you don't have the option of instant communication, you have to get creative. We used countless project management tools to keep all our deadlines and tasks on track:
Trello was one of our go-to’s for project management on the content marketing team. Our editorial calendar lived in Calendar view, and people were able to assign others to write, edit, and publish blogs as they came in. We then used the Slack Power-Up in Trello to notify our graphic design team when we needed blog images, right in our shared Slack channel.
Figma helped us facilitate graphic and web design across our geographies as we built out new landing pages and design elements. We were able to provide feedback through comments and annotations, share designs with external stakeholders, and view our designs in different formats. More importantly, we were able to avoid the dreaded design critique meetings that take hours and always include too. many. cooks.
We were big proponents of Loom to bring more visual aids to our async communication. This video tool allows simultaneous camera and screen recording, which we used to provide tutorials, walk through reports, and troubleshoot bugs. For visual communicators and learners like this writer, Loom was a godsend and helped us overcome communication hurdles.
Pro tip: the Loom integration lets users screencast and watch videos directly in Trello without having to switch tabs or windows. This was perfect when we needed to provide quick status updates in the middle of a project or share a how-to.
And that only touches the surface of the helpful tools we used. Our team found fun apps like Kahoot and Psych! for social hours. We utilized TriNet to manage our HR workflows. And we managed our customer service handoffs using Hubspot and Zendesk together.
Connecting People Around the World
Of course, managing distance is not just about project management. Teammates need to form bonds and connections too! And when you're working across cultures, that requires more tact. Our HR and leadership teams prioritized cultural immersion to help us find common ground. Our team in India, for example, sent us Diwali gifts and walked us through the traditions we otherwise wouldn't know about. And our US team sent over Secret Santa gifts to involve India's team in the fun.
Outside of the holidays, we made a point to emphasize "water cooler" channels in Slack to keep folks chatting. Our music channel explored heavy metal, techno, Bollywood, and classic rock. Our pets channel showcased cats, dogs, and snakes from around the world. And our random channel included fun facts, trivia, news, and complaints. We stayed connected as both coworkers and as people, which made us work better together.
Embracing The Distance
Within less than a year of working across continents, my workplace built a well-oiled machine that worked for all our teams. The fun thing about having all these systems in place meant that when the pandemic hit, we were more than prepared. We knew how to communicate async, we were Zoom experts, and our project management skills were top-notch.
Tools like Trello allowed us to build a shared workspace where we could all communicate in our own time, from our own homes. In fact, it even made work more fun and fluid. I'm poised to say I'll always be ready to work with an international team, and will never get caught off-guard by a question about working globally again.
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