One of the most readily apparent challenges facing the development of a communications plan for any international project is determining the best way for the project to communicate across time zones. This is a problem which changes in complexity and impact as the time zones spread out, but, regardless of the distance and difference, it is one which can have very a serious impact on the way the project is managed and communications performed.
Communicating Across Different Time Zones
As time zone differences increase, the challenges and opportunities faced change:
- With only one or two hours between locations, the time zones issue barely exists. Yes, you need to be aware of start and finish times, when your virtual team colleagues will break for lunch etc. but, telephone calls can be made with little consideration for the time at the other location and meetings scheduled with relative impunity, but as the hours increase the problem progressively worsens.
- Three and four hours difference can start to really bite into the project’s ability to have a conventionally structured communications plan typical of a co-located project. Morning in one location is the afternoon at the other, but at least there is sufficient overlap for both parties to be able to talk by phone or video for four to six hours a day. However, consideration for the time at each location is necessary so that one party or the other does not have to endure constant early mornings or late evenings to accommodate the scheduling from the other location.
- Once the difference gets up to six to eight hours, the gap becomes really inconvenient for normal business hours conversations. At this point most conversations generally fall outside of one locations normal working day so many discussions happen at the start or end of the business day, one party has to work outside of hours or the communications become more asynchronous, using email and voicemail instead of the telephone or video conference, which has an impact on the clarity of message and volume of communications.
- More than eight hours means that all discussions are outside of normal business hours for someone, and, communications can really begin to fragment as fewer members of the project team get to participate in that most human form of communication, the spoken conversation. Increasingly, at this point, communication becomes a once a week teleconference between key players, supported by email. This, for complex international exercises, is simply insufficient to avoid serious gaps. People need to communicate more frequently and in a more nuanced, natural and rich way. But, if a weekly catch up is all you can manage, when establishing protocols for these weekly meetings it is necessary to consider that, in the interests of fairness, the need to arrive early or stay late should be shared between locations so that everyone has at least some weeks of normal working hours.
Adding an additional wrinkle to the whole thing, is when the project is not simply spread between two different time zones, but multiples. In these instances, a great deal of planning must go into how the meetings and communications are structured, both to be fair to the attendees and also to get the most efficiency from the meetings. It may, for instance, be better to have several sub-meetings, each between only two or three parties in more or less similar time zones. Let each group work on their discussion points, then have an overall coordination meeting with only key players from each location at a separate time. This approach may make the meetings more time efficient for the attendees and allow more people to participate in each, though clearly the structure finally arrived at will be unique to both the project and the phase the project is at.
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Do you have any experiences with communications across time zones in a virtual team environment you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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