If you are working with a distributed team, time can be your best friend and your worst enemy. Which it is depends mostly on the way you choose to handle time zones. A well-organized team can successfully operate around the clock, giving your business the competitive advantage of increased flexibility and productivity.
With our experience helping global businesses and startups set up and run offshore development teams, we have decided to share some best practices and tales of other geographically distributed teams.
How to overcome time differences when working with a remote software development team? Our tips.
Know your overlap hours.
First of all, get to know the times when both your main office and your offshore development team are available. Here is a brief overview of the time zones of the US, Europe, and the most popular outsourcing location across the world.
Time Differences Between the US and Popular Outsourcing Destinations
|California (West Coast)||New York (East Coast)|
|Mexico||2 hours ahead||1 hour behind|
|Costa Rica||2 hours ahead||1 hour behind|
|Colombia||3 hours ahead||—|
|Argentina||5 hours ahead||2 hours ahead|
|Brazil||6 hours ahead||3 hours ahead|
|Poland||9 hours ahead||6 hours ahead|
|Ukraine||10 hours ahead||7 hours ahead|
|Romania||10 hours ahead||7 hours ahead|
|Bulgaria||10 hours ahead||7 hours ahead|
|India||13 hours 30 min ahead||10 hours 30 min ahead|
|China||16 hours ahead||13 hours ahead|
|Phillipines||16 hours ahead||13 hours ahead|
Time Differences Between the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Popular Outsourcing Destinations
|UK||Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden||Finland|
|Poland||1 hour ahead||—||1 hour behind|
|Ukraine||2 hours ahead||1 hour ahead||—|
|Romania||2 hours ahead||1 hour ahead||—|
|Bulgaria||2 hours ahead||1 hour ahead||—|
|Egypt||2 hours ahead||1 hour ahead||—|
|South Africa||2 hours ahead||1 hour ahead||—|
|India||5 hours 30 min ahead||4 hours 30 min ahead||3 hours 30 min ahead|
|China||8 hours ahead||7 hours ahead||6 hours ahead|
|Phillipines||8 hours ahead||7 hours ahead||6 hours ahead|
As we can see from the tables above, there is a significant time difference between the US and China, while the overlap between the US and European countries, including Ukraine, is much more manageable. However, even if you have a significant time difference, you can usually find at least two-hours of overlap to keep processes in sync.
If part of the team is located in Europe and the rest in the US, it is possible to run daily meetings between 2PM and 4PM. In these, the European offshore team can talk about what they did in the morning and what they plan to do until the next meeting. Meanwhile, the US team will explain their day ahead.
Use this time zone chart to map out the best time to talk, making sure you don’t miss any time slot or team member. There are multiple tools that allow you to conveniently organize and visualize your team’s availability, for example the World Clock Meeting Planner at timeanddate.com, or worldtimebuddy.com.
Use shared calendars to schedule meetings.
Take into account each team member’s time separately to increase transparency and simplify meeting schedules. For this purpose, you can use the default Google calendar or any planner with a sharing option. However, this approach requires each person to keep the calendar up to date, as well as you to add all your activities to the calendar, including personal appointments, lunch, and more.
Stay flexible and fair.
Make sure to share the inconveniences that time differences might cause across your development team. Sometimes your team might have to stay late for a meeting, sometimes you might need to get up earlier. If there is an obvious lack of communication and consistency in your team, try shifting your schedule to match the working hours of your offshore team. As soon as you are in sync (usually this takes 1-2 sprint cycles), you can get back to your regular schedule.
Limit the number of meetings.
Although having regular communication with your offshore team is highly recommended, excessive meetings and group discussions can be a real drain on productivity. Pay close attention to the specifics of each developer’s work.
Source - activecollab.com
Software engineers are makers, not managers, which is why irregular and frequent distractions (including meetings) can harm their productivity.
Focus on the meetings that are really necessary to keep track of a project. These might include sprint planning, demos, and bi-weekly general meetings. Make the use of project management tool for distributed teams.
Alternatively, you can have meetings with small groups (3-4 people) to address specific issues, instead of having 10+ people join a call to discuss a selection of questions that may not be directly related to their work and responsibilities.
Working across different time zones, you need to trust your team. You need to invest your time and efforts into hiring reliable and professional offshore developers, while making sure your team is self-managed and capable of making its own decisions. Make sure there is no idle time when the team doesn’t know what to do next and is waiting for you to give them another task. Alternatively, you could break down the team into self-managed groups, with each group in a similar time zone.
Consider agile practices.
Agile project management, especially Scrum, is widely employed by remote teams. You can adopt some of its elements into your communication and build your own process around that. Depending on how many developers you have and how compartmentalized your product is, consider structuring your offshore teams according to time zones to maximise collaboration on specific components of the product.
Don’t set meetings too early in the morning or too late in the evening.
There is always a chance that someone might not make it to the office on time, or will need to leave earlier. Perfect hours for meetings are from 10 am to 4 pm local time (although this might be impossible for teams with major time differences). If there is no other option, allow team members to join meetings from home.
Set specific requirements.
If you do need the team to stay in perfect sync with your on-site business processes, you can discuss this requirement early on. You’ll find there are many developers who don’t mind having a flexible schedule or even working night hours.
Invest in meetings in person.
Visit your team or invite them to your main business office. The travel and accommodation costs of a two week visit can be offset by boosting your team’s performance for another 20 weeks. Alternatively, you can meet “on neutral ground” - Zapier, a company that runs a highly successful distributed team, organizes regular company retreats.
Best practices. How startups can successfully manage time differences in distributed teams
Ben Hanna, who worked as a User Experience and Design Team Lead at couchsurfing.org, has a team of 30 full-time contractors working 100% remotely with no central office. The team, which is spread over 15 time zones, has been working this way for over a year.
Their list of their must-have tools include Basecamp, G Suite apps, Skype, TeamSpeak (a group voice chat software), Campfire, Dropbox, Freshbooks, TrackRecord, and email.
As for handling the time zone difference, Hanna’s main strategy was to “prioritize tasks based on time zones. If something needs to happen first in an early time zone, get it to the person responsible there. Good timing can make a project literally zip around the globe with work being completed 24 hours a day.”
To avoid a situation where one person always has to conform to a meeting time most suitable for the rest of the participants, the team at couchsurfing.org rotates its meeting times. The company also employs a number of practises to make sure no remote team member feels isolated: there are bi-monthly full-company meetings and bi-annual company conferences.
Another prominent example of a successful distributed team is Groove. The startup ran their team across 9 time zones. One of the key strategies that helped them streamline their work was asynchronous communication. This means that communication does not happen in real-time, but is stretched throughout each day. Issues do not require an immediate response from the person they are addressed to. This, in theory, limits distractions and sets clear roles for each team member, so you always know who’s doing what.
Groove’s CEO and cofounder, Alex Turnbull, shares his observations: ”The most effective way we’ve found to keep asynchronous communication flowing is to keep it simple, and use a single project management tool.” In Groove’s case, the team relies on Trello to keep track of their projects.
However, it is still important to be able to talk in real time: the Groove team has a regular meeting held every weekday at 10 a.m. EST. While the duration of these check-ins can vary depending on the day (from 10-minute meetings on Tuesday through Thursday, to the 30-minute Monday recap meeting), even the briefest base-touchers are still vitally important for keeping the team in sync.
Adequate space for informal communication is also an important aspect of successful team communication, in spite of time differences. The Groove team uses Slack as a “virtual water cooler” for real-time communication, specifically not related to work. This helps employees foster personal relationships and creates a friendly, informal atmosphere within the team.
Ready to Give It a Try?
Working across multiple time zones with a remote software development team is no easy task. However, the popularity of offshore development and outsourcing continues to grow. In 2017, it accounted for 11.9% of the total IT sector, an increase on the 10.6% recorded in 2016.
Some of the world's leading tech companies operate multiple teams across different time zones, successfully handling time differences and communication challenges. These include Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Furthermore, some of the best startups, including Automattic, Buffer, GitLab, HubStaff, and InVision, still run 100% remote teams.
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