We live in a globalized world. Working globally often means working with teams in different locations. Unfortunately, those locations may not always be in the same time zones. Can people work well together when very few of their business hours overlap?
Hillan Klein, chief operating officer of domain registration and web hosting company Namecheap, thinks so. “We want to build a business with the best talent we can find,” he says. So as they’ve scaled up, “we looked at talent without geographic boundaries. This gives us a global source pool.”
It also introduces complications. While Klein says the upsides of having diverse teams located around the world makes it worthwhile, he advises entrepreneurs to “really think about the form and function of the organization early on as much as you do about the product” if you want to embrace decentralization. Here’s how to make it work.
Even if you don’t have an official headquarters, somewhere needs to be home base. Maybe it’s the East Coast of the U.S., and expected business hours there are mostly normal business hours (e.g. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a few extra slots described below).
Yes, you want to empower people to work the hours that work for them. But scheduling works better if you have a general sense of when people will be available. If the U.S. East Coast is home base, then people in California might work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. People in Europe might work from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. As for Asia, that’s trickier, but one option is to agree that the hours of 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. can be open a few nights per week for calls, and try to alternate which locations take the evening slot each time. All this potential overlap is hard to remember, so you might want to create time zone charts and guidelines for employees.
“We’re pro-active about knowing when people are going to go offline,” says Klein. It’s not just about avoiding 3 a.m. calls (or Saturday calls to Australia) if at all possible. It’s about setting your own deadlines to maximize overall business efficiency. If you’re close to finishing a document at 5 p.m Eastern time, but decide to finish it up the next morning, and then send it to your Asian colleagues for review, they’re gone for the night. You’ll have lost a whole business day. Better to stay a bit late and finish it by 6 p.m., so you can get it to your Asian colleagues as they’re starting work.
Plan for when overlaps can’t happen. If someone needs to be kept in the loop, but the timing just can’t work, have a good system for recording meetings and sharing them with people after the fact.
Video conferences have their place, but if you’re asking people to jump online at 5 a.m. or 11 p.m., it’s just that much harder if they feel the need to look decent too. Namecheap tends to rely on audio conferencing, plus instant messaging and screen sharing.
If you only have an hour or two a day in overlap, you can’t afford confusion. As part of corporate culture, Namecheap employees repeat back action items from meetings so everyone’s clear on what needs to happen next. “The moment we started implementing it in our business, we started seeing a huge increase in productivity,” says Klein. “There was a lot less back and forth after the fact.”
Not everyone is good at setting limits. So someone needs to be charged with keeping an eye out for long term sustainability. If an employee has been on multiple calls until midnight, and is also sending emails at 5 a.m., this set-up needs to be re-calibrated. “It’s a very easy trap to fall into where people work around the clock if no one is paying attention,” says Klein.
Decentralized teams have many upsides, but there’s still much to be said for meeting face to face. So plan on getting teams together every few months at least. If people are working from home, you can use whatever you save on real estate costs for plane tickets and hotel rooms. It will be a good investment in making sure people want to keep waking up at 5 a.m. to talk with their colleagues.