I’m Sorry, Did I Wake You?

The challenge of working across time zones

17/01/2013

Global companies operate across several time zones and one of the challenges facing managers is to learn to "timeshift" in order to shape their day around different time zones, Prof. Erran Carmel told a Continuous Education session in Barcelona today. The session was moderated by IESE Prof. Evgeny Káganer.

Carmel, a professor at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington D.C, titled his talk "The Ten Things Every Manager Needs to Know About Working Across Time Zones." The basic problem, he says, is that our work structures have created a dispersal of workers across global fault lines – culture, language, organization, distance and time.

Having declared that distance is dead, the temptation is to say that temporal distance is dead, too. But time differences are not equivalent to distance. For example Los Angeles and Cape Town are around the same distance from London but LA is eight hours behind while Cape Town is a mere two hours ahead. There is only one hour difference between New York and Sao Paulo. On the other hand, China has only one time zone while Indonesia has three. In global companies there is also an issue of different working hours and public holidays.

In general, people prefer to work during the day and sleep at night and this makes it difficult to have the sort of interactive communication needed to tackle complex tasks and ideas if your working day coincides with a colleague’s sleep time. Managers have to learn to timeshift and work across different time zones, something that Carmel calls scattertime.

Working across time zones has an impact on the work-life balance but as yet we know little about the impact of timeshifting on health or society, he says. One way of making the most of time zones is what Carmel calls "follow the sun." The idea is that you pass your work on to someone who is ahead of you in the time zone while you go to sleep. This allows you to collapse the time to market but it also means many hand-offs and is not a good idea for long-term, complex projects.

Carmel also points out that scheduling meetings across time zones is a complex business and adds that some companies changes the hour to suit different zones at different times. The rule of two, he says, shows that working in more than two time zones creates huge complications. He adds that technology, which has changed so many other things, is little help in solving the time zone problem.