The etiquette of working across time zones

As soon as you have the opportunity to interact with your colleagues in another country, you’ll want to demonstrate that you are culturally sensitive.
As soon as you have the opportunity to interact with your colleagues in another country, you’ll want to demonstrate that you are culturally sensitive.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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“It’s a small world after all” isn’t just a contagious Disney song; it’s a truism in today’s global environment.  Companies looking for growth or cost savings are expanding internationally at increasing frequency, and technology is making it easier to do business.

As soon as you have the opportunity to interact with your colleagues in another country, you’ll want to demonstrate that you are culturally sensitive. Different countries often have very different ways of interacting, and you will come across as either arrogant or ignorant if you are not careful. For example, in many Asian countries there is a proper way to exchange business cards, in order to show respect. Doing it wrong can create unintentional ill will. Seek out cultural best practices in books and online that can help you avoid missteps. Here are a few to get you started:

Remember that you’re in a different time zone

Be sensitive to time zone differences. It’s best to schedule meetings and calls at a mutually convenient time for all parties. If this isn’t possible, then take turns so your colleagues aren’t always the ones inconvenienced by having to get up early or stay up late.

When on the phone, simply saying “hello” instead of “good morning” when it is evening where the other person is located shows you are mindful of differences. While you don’t need to be bilingual to interact with people in other countries, it’s also a nice touch to start calls with a warm greeting in the other person’s language. Translation services are improving every day, so this should be an easy way to show that you are culturally sensitive. A friendly “hola” or “shalom” can go a long way.

Be clear about meeting times and currencies

It’s amazing how many meetings get derailed because the times or dates were miscommunicated.  For example, when writing a date, 4/9/18 could either be April 9 or September 4. Avoid potential misunderstandings by writing out the full date: April 9, 2018. Also ensure everyone knows what time the meeting is in their local time zone. This gets even trickier around daylight savings time, where different countries change at different times! To avoid any confusion, when sending meeting invites, include all the relevant time zones and be specific (e.g., 7 a.m. NY time, 1 p.m. (13:00) Paris time).

Similarly, be careful about always talking in dollars, instead recognizing other currencies. If working with multi-country financials or analyses, it is essential to know which currency you are dealing in, and if necessary, what exchange rates were used.

Slow down

Remember that your colleague is not just speaking with an accent; English is most likely not their first language. So don’t speak too quickly, especially on the phone. It’s hard enough to follow a discussion even when everyone speaks the same language. Imagine doing so in a foreign one! Video conferencing, which is becoming more ubiquitous, is better, but regardless, be sure to engage in two-way dialogue so everyone understands what was said.  Many times people will nod or say yes when they really weren’t clear on the message. In order to avoid miscommunication, it is a good practice to paraphrase what you heard, and ask the other person to do the same.  Follow up with meeting notes confirming the messages.

If you don’t know cultural norms, ask

When working with colleagues from another country for the first time, spend a lot of time listening and asking questions about work-related mores. For example, in some cultures, it is impolite to jump right into business without sufficient small talk. Another example is regarding decision making. In the U.S. we often value speed over precision, however in some cultures, decision-making will be a more involved process. You may think your international colleagues are trying to avoid making a decision, when in reality, they prefer to take the extra time to make a thoughtful and wise one. For them, thoroughness is valued over speed. Keep in mind neither is right or wrong, they are just different; try not to judge.

Leverage in-person opportunities

If you have the opportunity to meet your global teammates in person, take advantage of this and try to build in some time for relationship building. Face-to-face interaction, particularly over a meal, is especially important when working alongside people from other countries. Even one in-person meeting can change all future interactions for the better.

Karyn Schoenbart is the CEO of The NPD Group and the author of MOM.B.A. Essential Business Advice from One Generation to the Next.