Recently I was asked a question about managing projects across multiple timezones. I think I know a bit about that, so I jotted down a few notes; then some more. The list kept getting longer and longer. Eventually, I realised I needed to publish them in two parts. This post is Part 1.
I’m going to lay this out in three sections:
Firstly, I’ll give you a bit more background on me to provide you with a feeling of my experience with this subject.
Secondly, I’ll list out the many different factors to consider in managing multi-time zone projects.
Thirdly, I’ll discuss how you put this all together. Some factors are actionable stand-alone (e.g. find out all the holidays). Others are interdependent.
What do I know about this?
The very first project I ever managed required the development or conversion of over 40 software products and components by 16 subcontractors, located in Australia, USA, and the UK.
Since then it’s been rare that a project hasn’t involved at least one party in a different timezone. Over my career, I’ve worked for two global multi-nationals in roles that involved constant liaison with teams outside Australia, and frequent travel.
Since the outsourcing craze took off, I’ve frequently worked with organisations in India and the Philippines. With more than a full generation passing since the collapse of the USSR, it’s common to have both individual contractors and software companies in Eastern Europe, Belarus, Ukraine and Romania are a few that I’ve worked with in recent years. Israel has had a software boom for the last decade, so they are in the mix too.
So you could say that managing multi-team, multi-culture, multi-time zone projects is second nature to me; it’s in my DNA.
Things to think about
Here are the factors that we have to keep in mind. As you work through the sections below, you’ll see there are overlaps and commonalities between many of them.
- Workday is not equal to Work/Life Balance.
- Build a World Map.
- Get the rhythm of their workweeks and workdays.
- Check for time changes (e.g. Summer times)
- Find out all the holidays: formal and informal.
- Learn something about each location – and keep current
- Communications Links and Tools
- Understand the cultural breakdown of each location (Part 2)
- Communication, Culture and Language (Part 2)
Your Workday is not equal to Your Work/Life Balance.
As a PM of a multi-time zone project, you can’t be precious about what a “work day” means – it’s not 9-5 or 8-6 in your home timezone. Your team will be working many hours outside your typical day. You’ll need to find a way to deal with this.
I don’t mean you’ll be working 24/7 or have no work/life balance (unless you deliberately choose not to have any). It does mean the whole team needs to think in multiple versions of a workday across all the other teams’ locations. You need to develop a rhythm for the regular workdays of the other teams and understand how they map together.
You need to ensure that everyone knows how to contact you when things are urgent, and how to use other means when it isn’t urgent.
I’ll talk about methods in the “Putting it all together” section in Part 2.
Build a World Map.
Save yourself some time and map out the locations of all the team members and other stakeholders who are involved in the project. Know the country, state or province, and locality of each place where a team member is working.
It might seem like a trivial thing, but I find it gets you focused. Share the map and use it whenever you’re collaborating on new meetings or events. And it’s a great addition to a project overview.
Also, try to find out the hometown of team members if they aren’t working where they were born and brought up. It’s not a mandatory thing, but I’ve found it useful. And it’s also something you can build up over time. I would keep to myself – don’t add it to the project overview!
Get the rhythm of their workweeks and workdays.
For all the locations, find out their regular workdays and workweeks. Don’t assume everyone works Monday to Friday. Some places work Saturdays as well. Muslim countries have at least part of Friday off and work Saturdays to make up the time, or not.
Understand what the “normal” workday timings are where they work. What are the formal work hours and when do people actually come and go: some cultures work very late, and don’t start early. Some places have legally mandated maximum work hours.
Check for time changes (e.g. Summer times)
A relatively small thing but it can mess up your regularly planned meetings if you’re not across the changes or your calendar doesn’t alert you. Mark these changes in your calendar with early reminders.
Learn something about each location – and keep current
It might seem trivial, but put some effort into learning about each location and the current situation. Find newsfeeds that you can subscribe to and keep current.
You don’t need to become an expert; you only need to get an idea of what’s happening and if there are events that could impact your teammates. Are there political events or natural disasters? Are there regular power outages or transport issues?
Find out all the holidays: formal and informal.
This is important. Get on the internet and work out the statutory holidays for every team member location. Don’t forget national and regional and even local holidays as well. Be sure you know if the dates are the same each year, or variable, as in Lunar or star-based calendars.
As well as the statutory holidays, there are often periods during the year during which it is more common to take personal leave than others.
And there are periods in many countries which are not holidays, but during which there are noticeable changes in work behaviour. Ramadan, Chinese New Year and (to a lesser extent) Lent are all periods during which there will be distinct variation in work patterns, depending on what cultural or religious groups make up your teammates.
Don’t forget to get everyone’s recreation leave plans while you’re doing this. Make sure you ask about all reasons someone might be off work: study leave, planned sick leave (e.g. major operations), marriage, military leave and so forth. And remember to prime everyone to let you know if plans change, or something unexpected comes up, e.g. jury duty. And what to do if folks are sick.
Personal plans always change, so build the validation of leave plans into normal team processes, like meetings or online coffee sessions. Regular announcements of upcoming events and asking a stock question such as “does anyone have any leave coming up that we don’t already know about?” will keep the information current.
Communications Links and Tools
Even with communications in the 21st century, phone and internet connections around the world are not perfect. In particular, international circuits seem to be more variable than domestic circuits, although that also varies from country to country.
International links also may be more sensitive to people speaking at the same time. Sometimes ambient noise at one end of the line may prevent someone else talking until there’s a pause or the noise disappears.
You need to be tolerant of variable quality, but also be prepared to shut the call down if quality deteriorates. Everyone has plenty of things they can do.
Since Covid-19, the use of collaboration tools has exploded in line with the number of people working from home. It’s introduced a whole lot of first-time users who make first-time user errors. Work out the right tool for each interaction and encourage people to learn the tool well, for example, how to share content. Establish agreed process on how meetings will run (e.g. mute when not talking and whether the use of the camera is preferred or optional). And don’t ignore device knowledge, there is a big difference in how laptop microphones and stand-alone microphones work.
That’s it for Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll finish all the factors you have to consider and describe how to put it all together.