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Working Across Time Zones Can Cost You Sleep--And a Lot of Money

When you hire someone for your remote team or your project you strike a deal. Should the conditions of employment change over time? If it they don't you could lose that person, and it could cost you and your company a lot of money.

I was speaking to a group of project managers recently, when the seemingly innocent topic of time zones came up. My point was, that when you have a team scattered over multiple time zones and even countries, it causes tension if one person is constantly inconvenienced or one group is always at the mercy of the clock and the rest of the team. One particularly grumpy PM said, "We're a Midwest based, US company and we run on Central time. They knew the deal when they signed on. If they miss dinner, it's a condition of employment and they knew that going in."

The crowd split about evenly at that point between the "that's right, a deal's a deal" side and the "they feel like second class citizens and it hurts team morale". I cowered behind the dais until the dust cleared, but that's not important right now. What's important is that managers recognize circumstances change and how that can impact the strength of your team and the success of your project or function.

Given that it can cost 150% or more of someone's salary to recruit and replace them. We're talking real money and hassle.

There are a couple of important factors to consider in how a team works across time zones

  • Sometimes what you think you're signing up for isn't what you have. Ask any married person on the planet if knowing something going in and the reality of the situation are the same thing. On the surface, you put in eight hours (or10 or 14) and it shouldn't matter if you start at 7 in the morning or midnight. If you've never worked remotely before, or been part of a team that is centered in another time zone, there may be things you didn't expect. When you're new to the job it might not be a big deal to skip family meals or the kids' soccer games every week because of that conference call. Over time it is a drag.
  • You'd be amazed what you'll agree to when you really need a job. The world of work is changing. By next year, some statistics suggest that a quarter of the workforce will be part-time or contract workers. Odds are that on any large team you'll have a number of people who are working remotely for the first time or contractors who used to be "real" employees somewhere. Many more may have been unemployed (the new euphemism is "between contracts") for a long time and are grateful to make some money. That gratitude wears off over time. As people become more comfortable, things like working hours and flexibility become more important to them. If they feel abused or unmotivated, they become easy pickings for headhunters and employers who don't expect them to give up every evening of their lives.
  • It's almost embarrassing how grateful people are for small signs of compassion. The truth is, that in most jobs we are so used to being inconvenienced that when someone noticeably takes the effort on our behalf we are grateful in all proportion to the size of the act. At the same meeting I was speaking at, one woman told how her team always schedules reward and recognition calls to be appropriate for the person being rewarded. Stop and think, does making someone get up at 4 AM to hear what a good job they're doing really motivate them? There are a couple of other advantages to mixing up the time zones: 1) Everyone shares being inconvenienced once in a while so they know how it feels and 2) When a group of people does something for your benefit, you establish trust and relationships on a gut level. Teams that trust and communicate well with each other are more productive.
The fact is that team and personal dynamics evolve over time. Little resentments can become huge problems, and small gestures of sympathy can be seen as big sacrifices that are received gratefully. Listen to your team members and hear what's going on before it's too late.

So, yes, you may have people who accepted the job under certain conditions. Conditions change. You can either treat those people like interchangeable cogs in a machine and swap them out for someone who won't whine or you can work with your team members to reach a solution that works.

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