The benefits to having a global team can be huge. You get different perspectives, you tap into expertise that might not be available near you, you can lower your costs, and work gets done while you're asleep. But along with the benefits, come the headaches. You need the team to meet but the Chinese office is closed, or you've requested your San Francisco office be on a 5 am call four times this week and they're starting to rebel. How do you keep your global team engaged, focused, on task, and keep the communication lines open while coping with everyone's schedules?
First. Establish a universal time zone for your team. This may seem simplistic, but it can save you a lot of aggravation. Be clear that when you say the meeting is at 4 pm, that means 4 pm Central Standard Time, and everyone can calculate what that means for their office. Without a standardized time zone, you're in danger of scheduling a meeting one day for 3 pm Pacific Time and the next day 10 am Eastern Time and pretty soon confusion will reign and people will miss meetings. It really doesn't matter what time you choose for universal time, as long as everyone knows what it is.
Second. Make sure everyone on the team knows what time it is for everyone else. One easy way to do this is to enable Google calendar's world clock (under settings, labs). Or as we suggested in an earlier blog, use Time and Date's world clock that shows normal working, sleeping, and away from office times in an easy color coded chart. The point is to have an easy way to find out whether your team is available for the meeting you're trying to schedule.
Third. Schedule a meeting a least once a week for the extended team. This ensures that everyone is really connected to the team, knows what's going on, and is clear about priorities. Encourage questions in these meetings, and try to use a video conference if at all possible so that everyone can get to know faces and see expressions.
Fourth. When on a call, be aware of what time it is for everyone else. You may be taking the call at 9 am and be bright and fresh, but that means your Chinese colleague is on the phone at 9 pm and is probably tired and may not be up for brainstorming. Or your colleague in Seattle may have just woken up. You may want to rotate the time of these calls so that the same people are not always staying late or getting up early. If you do, be sure to rotate on a schedule to minimize confusion.
Fifth. Don't underestimate the importance of in-person meetings. At least twice a year, you should get the whole team together in one place. Nothing beats face-to-face communication. Include activities that are not work related, and ideally change the location so that everyone eventually gets a chance to show off their town, their cuisine, and their work space. Also consider holding a meeting where you have no offices. Then everyone is on neutral territory and the whole team gets to explore together. These face-to-face meetings help create bonds, and give people a chance to learn each other's personality and create shared experiences. Such experiences go a long way toward creating better, more cohesive teams. The payoff will come from your team working better together in the intervening months.
Sixth. Watch your tone and remember there is no such thing as over-communicating. Tone can be hard to read in an email, so assume the best of the sender. Maybe she's having a bad day and is coming across a little brusque. Shake it off and move on. And try to stay away from humor. Jokes often don't come across well in email even if both people speak the same language. If you're communicating with someone who is not a native speaker, the joke is even less likely to be a hit. Do however, try hard to be positive and friendly to overcome the often flat and negative affect that email can have.
If the email you receive is at all ambiguous, respond with a clarifying question. Since you can't just walk down the hall or run into someone at the elevator, you have to be sure that whatever you're working on is crystal clear.
Seventh. Take Time Before Responding. We all get crazed about trying to keep from being buried in email and often we respond too quickly. If someone sends you an email that gets you irked, sure, go ahead a draft a response. Then delete it and start over. In a distributed team, the time zone may work in your favor. If your colleague will not be back in the office for hours, you have plenty of time to calm down and respond with a reasoned reply which hopefully also has some positive suggestions that will steer the matter more in the direction you'd like it to go. It's hard enough to clear up office spats and miscommunications in person, in a global team, these things can fester and cause major problems down the road.
These are just a few of the tips we've learned when working across time zones with large and small groups. It can take more work to get a distributed team running smoothly, but if you're tapping into a wider pool of talent and getting work done 24/7, it's worth the extra effort.