What time is it in Paris? Shanghai? Denver?
While this is not an age-old question, it is a common modern question asked daily in the global workplace where collaboration takes place over multiple time zones and cultures. People miss meetings and deadlines when they can’t figure out time zones, which can cause much confusion and stress for businesses and their employees.
Technology has opened new realms for both businesses and employees. Thanks to unified communications, the opportunities are abundant. This technology enables companies to acquire talent from all over the world, strengthening the organization with a diversity of cultures and ideas while allowing employees freedom of location and time. The bonus for this arrangement is that it supports local communities by giving young people and skilled people, who in the past may have had to leave their areas to find employment, the opportunity to stay where they currently reside. This global workforce spread across time zones permits work to continue around the clock, which is advantageous in meeting customer needs and sustaining a continuous workflow.
While the opportunities are great in this global workplace, companies and staff may face some challenges and growing pains in adapting to this new way of work. These growing pains can ease with true collaboration, understanding and protocols.
Building bridges with unified communication and collaboration tools
To ease the growing pains of a global workforce, it is essential to get all the teams or units together on the same page from the beginning. That requires a combination of intense collaboration, attention to detail, and the use of unified communication and collaboration tools.
Virtual team members can implement some straightforward solutions to work flawlessly. Each of them have advantages; you need to choose the options that fit within your business model and company culture.
World clock is the simplest way to answer the question, “What time is it?” Most devices today have a world clock that allows you to set multiple time zones. The clock enables groups to see a glance what the time it is at any given moment for their team members.
First, set a home time zone for all teams to use. The home time zone could be the zone where the company is headquartered. From that set time, establish what the time overlap is during which all team members are available. Of course, this overlap will depend on the functions. Keep in mind, when creating the time overlap, that B2B and B2C will have different schedules. As well, remember that Europe has three time zones, North America has four time zones, and Asia has seven different zones.
For example, let’s look at the East Coast of the U.S. as our home base, where traditional business hours are considered 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST (Eastern Standard Time). Staffers based in Washington State (Pacific Time Zone or PT) might be available from 6:00 a.m. EST to 2:00 p.m. EST (9 to 5 in their own local time). Team members in Europe working their own 9-to-5 day could be available from 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. EST. Teams based in Asia or Australia might find it more difficult since some may be nearly a full day ahead.
The ideal situation is to select times for team meetings when everyone is awake and attempt to alternate locations. Be respectful of when members are going offline. You want to avoid calling someone in Berlin at 3:00 a.m. your time in order to reach them at 9:00 a.m. their time, and you also want to avoid making a call at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday from Toronto that will ring at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia. You also must be aware of cultural and religious holidays observed in the regions in which your virtual teams are based.
All this potential overlap is difficult to retain, so creating time zone charts and guidelines for employees will be helpful. Even better, collaboration tools that integrate visual indicators of team members’ availability are priceless. Even better if the tool provides additional information on people’s location and time zone. It can get complicated and downright confusing, but once everyone gets into the routine, it gets better.
Meeting face to face across the time zones
Once the “What time is it in…?” question is answered, then you can focus on the more substantial challenges, such as effective communication across time zones and cultures. (Donna Flynn has some great suggestions in a Harvard Business Review article from a couple years ago.) In this virtual workplace, it can be challenging to communicate about complex concepts when team members are not able to have discussions, ask questions, explain ideas and keep everyone up to date in real time.
This lack of face-to-face interaction restricts social cues, which could lead to misunderstandings and conflict, especially if the teams are cross-cultural in addition to being based in different time zones. It is vital to match the message to the medium to avoid these missteps.
Unified communication tools support effective communication among virtual units, and their adoption is growing, according to a Synergy Research report. A tool can be customized at the enterprise level depending on the type and size of business; smaller groups can use more out-of-box tools. Videoconferencing is the next best thing to face-to-face meetings when it comes to to adequately sharing complex information, especially when participants need to observe body language and hear tone and inflection. For small or non-urgent requests, email, instant messaging or cloud-based team collaboration tools make sense. One-on-one phone calls should be encouraged to promote a more personal connection. They can be scheduled calls or more impromptu, informal calls. The best collaboration tools provide all-in-one services because you are able to chat, videoconference, share files and screens, send email and, very importantly, call a landline or cell phone, all from one application.
Working as a team
Coordinating virtual teams can sometimes feel like coaching a squad of blindfolded footballers during a match. While everyone should be working in harmony as a unified force, members are often unaware of what other members are doing and how everyone’s work fits together in the vaster scheme. Team leaders need to put processes into place and model good communication to alleviate this situation. Managers need to articulate the company’s purpose, designate roles and responsibilities, formulate detailed project plans, establish performance metrics, and make a depository accessible in the cloud. Team collaboration tools are helpful in keeping members up to date on how and when they should provide updates, review deliverables and make decisions. Working outside these processes can threaten the team’s cohesion.
Belonging to or managing a virtual team can be challenging; however, the opportunities outweigh the challenges when you put the right process, tools and people into place.
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