Paul Dowman




Working across time zones

Ideally your team has at least half the day overlapping. This allows for some synchronous time but also allows enough flexibility to hire remotely.

But at various times I have worked with teams that span the globe, for example a group at Shopify that included both Europe and all North American time zones. 9 AM PST is 6 PM CET, their work days don’t even overlap! (Update in 2023: At Polygon I also led a team that was mostly India- and Dubai-based, plus Taiwan and Europe! We made the most of async communication but this is far from ideal.)

So in those situations we have to be a little bit flexible when we do have a meeting with everyone. But at the same time we want to keep things sustainable and as pain-free as possible, and in any case there’s a lot of good that comes out of embracing a more asynchronous working style:

So we lean into async communication by default.

Some practices that can help work effectively with time zone differences:

  • Default to writing in a place that externalizes information, and then sharing just a link to it in chat. Then you get future benefit from it, e.g. putting something directly into documentation or a GitHub issue or the project board instead of ephemeral chat.
  • Keep all-hands meetings to a minimum. If it requires a big stretch for those at the far ends of the time difference then also do them at alternating times and make it acceptable to watch a recording instead.
  • For all meetings consider the purpose and whether it’s the type that can be done partly or fully as writing instead. Think document-centred communication instead of meeting-centred communication. If you do need a meeting for final alignment or decision-making it’s much higher-leverage.
  • For all meetings, assume some people won’t be present. Take notes and share them with everyone who was invited. Don’t rely on recordings, a good written summary is a lot more efficient.
  • Normalize turning off notifications outside of work hours. This makes it easier for anyone to send messages freely without worrying about bothering people outside of their working hours.
  • Set working hours in your calendar and block any times that you’re unavailable (lunch time, caregiver times, etc). This makes scheduling meetings easier because you can assume any free spot is a good time to book a meeting instead of doing time zone math and thinking about whether it might be lunch time or too early or too late for someone in the group.

I still encourage lots of pair programming between folks who do overlap comfortably (even though this does tend to partition the team a bit), but for most other things I think it’s beneficial to default to writing.

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2023 © Paul Dowman