4 Reasons Timezones and Language Matter to International Teams

Last Updated May 3, 2010 7:15 AM EDT

It's easy for us to take for granted the amazing global 24/7 world we live in. The fact that you can reach out at any time and access someone on the other side of the planet to answer a question or solve a problem is nothing short of mindboggling, and would have gotten you burned at the stake for witchcraft only a couple of hundred years ago. Still, there are serious challenges for remote workers, especially across time zones and countries.

Recently, someone posted a snarky comment on a post I wrote that got me thinking. Pharma1 was more than a little put out that (particularly American) managers felt no hesitation in scheduling online meetings that were at inconvenient times for those in other locations. This might seem like a small thing but if your goal is honest communication, trust and a team that is pulling for a common goal this really does matter. Time zones and language differences loom large among reasons virtual teams fail.

Here are 4 things managers of international teams should consider if they want to keep their team cohesive and engaged:

  1. Galileo was right, you're not the center of the universe. When you're based out of World Headquarters, it's very easy to presume that everyone works the same schedule you do. The fact is that breakfast in San Francisco is Tea Time in London, " tuck the kids into bed" time in Bangalore and who knows what time of tomorrow in Auckland. While most people understand their place on the food chain and adjust willingly to accommodate the boss' schedule, it's the expectation that they always should do so that makes them crazy. Would it kill you to share the pain a bit? You'd be surprised how much good will you get in return.
  2. Everyone speaks English, so what's the problem? Just because everyone on your team has a proven ability to function in a common language doesn't mean they do their best work that way. As Dr. Deasun Oconchuir said in an interview on the Cranky Middle Manager Show, workers in foreign languages often aren't comfortable piping up in meetings or on conference calls. They may need time to read the minutes or listen to the recording a second time before they're ready to give quality feedback. Build time for reflection into your team decision making or you might not get the benefit of some very good thinking.
  3. There's no "spell check" for accents. Many foreign employees feel at a disadvantage because they aren't as persuasive verbally as they are in writing. While it's important to manage the team's time, not every decision needs to be made immediately. Give people space to formulate a reasoned response and allow for healthy written discussion and questions. This is where your shared documents and wikis play an important role.
  4. How clear is YOUR thinking at 5 AM? We all know (and are largely ruled by) our own body clock. Are you a morning person? You probably schedule important discussions for the morning, then, otherwise you'll be tired and cranky. Why would your virtual teammates be any different? Forget the human factor for a moment- on a pure productivity basis, shouldn't you consider the role time and working conditions play in getting the best out of your people?
Letting your remote employees feel that their needs are important to you , or that you're willing to occasionally sacrifice for their sakes, can go a long way to engaging them, creating loyalty to you and the team, and getting the best work from them. It just takes a little consideration.

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photo courtesy of flickr user foxspain CC 2.0