ON THE CLOCK

Three techniques that helped me manage work-life balance on a new time zone

This month, Donald Trump is scheduled for his first trip overseas as US president, paying visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. While there aren’t a lot of things that I have in common with Trump, I can relate to one challenge he’ll face during this time: life as a manager removed from his home base.

I’m usually based in New York, but over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to work from South Africa and London. Over that time, I’ve come to identify a particular kind of apprehension that I’ll call “time zone anxiety.” It’s a feeling that’s probably familiar to anyone working a few hours ahead or behind their company’s main office.

My work day is generally defined by a list of tasks and meetings that take me through peaks and valleys of productivity. I arrive at work, set about on my tasks, and try to establish a rhythm. And then, bam: New York signs on (or London, or Tokyo, or Beijing). Just as I’m about to reach for my mid-afternoon caffeine hit, that office is about to hit peak energy, demanding my full attention. Or, if I’m in a time zone behind an office, there are several Slack messages, emails, and voice messages hitting me just as I’m about to reach for my early morning caffeine hit. This kind of long-distance relationship can have major drawbacks, ranging from stress and anxiety to exhaustion from late nights or exceptionally early mornings.

The disciplined among us may be able to avoid these kinds of problems by strictly managing communications with the main office: for example, avoiding checking email during non-office hours. But for those of us less skilled at time management (and boundaries), it’s not so easy. Here are a few strategies that can help remote workers strike a better balance:

Communicate

Any remote team should have a formal plan for how they are going to regularly communicate about their work—which may include daily or weekly check-ins using video conferencing; Slack; email; project management systems; and handover notes. This type of communication, managed properly, can make the most of the flow between time zones and increase productivity. It can also serve as a marker for the start and the end of a work day, which can help mitigate any anxiety or tension caused by the time difference.

“It takes a lot of organization,” says Quartz global finance and economics editor, Jason Karaian, who manages writers in San Francisco, New York, and London, in addition to working with writers in Africa and Asia. He suggests having weekly goals, and tracking those goals with regular progress reports when everyone is online. (Quartz’s entrepreneur-in-residence Khe Hy has some advice for employees on how to approach this type of communication with their boss.)

Setting up a clear communication plan can also help bosses avoid slipping into micromanagement. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to fall into toxic habits like asking employees to provide unnecessary, constant accounts of how they’re spending their time. “A remote work environment should encourage performance—not presence,” entrepreneur Neil Patel told Zapier, a web app integration platform, for their 2015 book about remote work. “Then, you won’t have to worry about time off and how many hours people are working. You are simply looking for high-performers who can get stuff done.”

Communication also shouldn’t focus exclusively on work. Donna Flynn of design company Steelcase, writing about her experience managing a team across five time zones for the Harvard Business Review, notes that she bakes in time during remote meetings to resolve tech issues (an all-too-common feature) as well as time for employees to talk about “vacations, travel experiences, or lifestage celebrations like engagements or new babies.” This can help remote employees feel more connected to their peers, a valuable stand-in for face-to-face conversations.

Karaian also recommends remote employees make an effort to actively reach out to employees in the main offices. “You have a better chance of getting the mood of HQ, hearing about what’s going on, and generally feeling a part of the whole if you make an effort to talk with lots of people, than if you only communicate through formal channels or wait for coworkers from the mothership to reach out to you,” he says.

Plan ahead for potential conflicts

Remote employees are expected to be flexible about meeting times. But that shouldn’t stop them from setting boundaries about when they are going to be online and respond to messages. It’s essential to communicate days off in advance, and to remind team members of your status on any communication tools you use.

“Your colleagues at HQ know that you’re working when they’re off, but the details are fuzzier and more abstract than for the people around them at the main office,” Karaian says. Try strike a balance between keeping them updated but not going overboard on the details, which can come off as annoying or needy, he suggests.

People in the mothership should expect to be flexible too. Make the most of the period when work hours overlap by “maximizing everyone’s availability,” suggests Joe Moore of Pivotal Labs. For example, a London-based main office might reserve the late afternoons for meetings with team members on the US East Coast.

Call attention to the clock

When sending out meeting invites, it can be useful to note the different times at which the discussion will take place across time zones. This is a helpful reminder to everyone that a meeting isn’t taking place at the same time for everyone, and encourages employees to be more cognizant of time. And remote workers should feel free to remind the main office of their schedule.

“When I make an appointment with someone who is not in India, I usually Google and mention the Indian Standard Time as well as the local time in the other person’s country. I don’t just say ‘Hey, let us talk at 5pm my time,’ says Quartz India’s editor, Diksha Madhok. “I think New Yorkers feel that the whole world has EST on their clocks, which is amusing and exasperating at the same time.” Just being aware of the time difference, especially on Slack, can make a huge difference.

It’s also helpful to include an acknowledgment that your message may be reaching another person at an inopportune time, and an indication of when you’d expect a reply if something is urgent.

Zapier’s guide also recommends that offices with far-flung workers use Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a guiding star. “If you travel the world frequently, knowing which time zone you’re in relative to GMT is crucial—and it’s also important if you’re working with a distributed team,” writes Matthew Guay. Whichever time zone you pick, make sure your entire team is synced to it.

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