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Managing a Global Workforce in Different Time Zones

It’s hard to appreciate the value of face time with employees, until it’s no longer an option. If you have an international business and are looking to hire workers in other countries, you are suddenly left to manage without the ability to pick up on visual cues or pop over and walk through things in person.

To succeed on a global scale, small business owners must have strategies and communication tools in place to keep their team members on the same page — even when those team members work and live in different time zones.

Here are four tips to help business owners maintain good communication with employees, regardless of where they’re located.

“When you’re collaborating with somebody that’s around the world, you need to be a lot more clear on what the expectations are.”

— Jon Tucker, senior strategist at Compete Marketing Group

1. Set Expectations Early

Business owners should establish expectations early regarding their employees’ work hours, says Leo von Wendorff, owner and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Virtual Knowledge Workers, a company that pairs international virtual assistants with businesses around the world.

“Some people want to work during the day, and then hand it off and have the nightshift cover it,” he says. “My tip is to be clear about which hours [employees should] work before you hire them.”

As senior strategist at San Diego-based Compete Marketing Group, an online marketing agency, Jon Tucker leads a team of one domestic employee and seven contractors (four of which are located in other countries).

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“When you’re collaborating with somebody that’s around the world, you need to be a lot more clear on what the expectations are,” Tucker says. Tucker doesn’t dictate which times people must work. However, he does set standards on how people should communicate that they are working.

Tucker’s team members all log into a project management system when they’re working, which includes task lists assigned to each person. “Our online time tracker actually logs their billable time and takes periodic screen captures of their screen to document that they're working,” he says. “If their computer goes idle for a certain period of time, the timesheet system turns off their billable time tracker to avoid mistakenly billed time from being logged in our system. We also receive a summary of which websites and software they were using on their computer during billable time to ensure they didn't accidentally leave the tracker on during non-billable time.”

2. Try a Five-minute Check-in

When managing international employees, business owners often miss the personal connection and interaction that comes with working in the same office. Not to mention the difference in time zones means everyone is often working at different times. A solution to this, Wendorff says, is doing what he calls a “Five-minute Daily.” He suggests that his clients take fives minutes each day to talk one-on-one with their international team members either by calling, Skypeing or videoconferencing. During these brief calls, Wendorff suggests that his clients check in on remote workers’ progress, ask them if they have any questions and make small talk with their employees about their weekends.

“It has lots of other benefits, creates a great rapport and a positive working relationship, but it also [offers] the opportunity to take the emotional temperature of that employee,” he says.

3. Use Common Communication Tools to Stay on the Same Page

Even when a boss and employee have a great relationship, things can get bumpy if their technology isn’t communicating properly. Businesses can minimize technological glitches by ensuring that everyone is using the same types and brands of technology.

Georgina El Morshdy, owner of Gem Writing, a freelance copywriting and content marketing consultancy in Plymouth, U.K., makes sure she and her international contractors are using the same communication tools, whether it’s project management or Web conferencing software. “The time zone difference has not been such an issue,” she says. “With tools such as Skype and GoToWebinar, you can have really high-quality voice or even face-to-face discussions with people over the Internet, so I don’t feel I miss out not meeting in person and it’s still as professional.”

When it comes to conducting business oversees, it’s helpful to gauge the technology needs of team members at the beginning of the process. Tucker, for instance, expects his international employees to be familiar with Basecamp, which is online project management software that helps with collaboration. Tucker says he covers this in the interview process. “In this industry, nearly all contractors we consider working with already have a lot of experience on these tools so minimal training is required,” Tucker says.

4. Shift Your Schedule

Sometimes, working with international employees or contractors means working late in the evening or early in the morning. Morshdy manages the logistical problem of setting up meetings with her Canadian consultant, who is several hours behind her. Yet, she has found a way to make it work. “This works well for me, because the house tends to be quiet after 8 p.m.,” she says. “I was concerned at first that I may miss appointments because of the time conversion — which can get more complicated with daylight saving changes — but there are some great online tools that make it really easy to check.”

For example, sites such as Time Zone Converter can tell business owners what the time is in a different part of the world. Also, most smartphones have a world clock option that allows people to create alternate clocks for different time zones around the globe.

While working in different time zones can pose additional challenges, it’s something that can be managed with a bit of planning. Fortunately, international management can be much easier today as business owners have a plethora of communication tools at their disposal — from Skype to virtual project management software to time conversion clocks. By taking advantage of these resources, business owners can spend more time focusing on their businesses and less time on logistics. 

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