How to manage time zone differences

Last week I was talking with a prospective client that is based in New York and one of their major concerns with engaging me to work on their software, was the time difference between New York and Australia (my home base).

During this conversation I realized that this wasn’t the first time I had heard this concern expressed by a client. A lot of my clients are based in the US and the large time difference between my office and the East Coast of the USA is something that can make a trans-pacific relationship seem more difficult that it really is.

Since this issue comes up again and again, and I’m sure other remote consultants/freelancers are running up against this hurdle, I thought it would be worthwhile jotting down my techniques for managing working with clients across a variety of time zones.

In no particular order, here are some of the things that reduce the impact of time zone differences:

  • Keeping hours that give as much crossover as possible;
  • Having flexibility in when I work;
  • Being aware / making aware of basic team schedules as they stand a few days into the future;
  • Always communicating times in the clients time zone to reduce possible mixups;
  • “over communicating” in emails/discussions. By including “more” information that is necessary, predicting what questions will be raised and answer them in advance;
  • Publishing a set hours of “guaranteed” availability so that people know they reach me during set times;
  • Have a method to “announce” I am starting, and give lots of prior warning before checking out. This allows people to make requests etc. as soon as I am available, and for people to catch me before I am gone;
  • Work clock tools to tell me at a glance the current time my client’s team are at;
  • Calendaring tools that make is easy to know what time you are scheduling meetings with other time zones;
  • Having the ability to work independently, give me a task and I can run with it;
  • Keeping my cellphone handy in case of “urgent” availability;
  • Using electronic collaboration tools like Trello and Basecamp to allow preservation of conversations, and the ability to have a discussion “spread out”;

There are probably lots of other little things that I do without thinking about them, but those are the major things that I have found to make relationships across a large time zone difference “work”.

I also like to stress that there are some benefits to working at a different time zone to others on the same project. For instance, It’s great having a portion of my working hours where I am unlikely to be interrupted by others for meetings etc. In that time you can really get into the zone and be super productive. I share Joel Spolsky’s opinion that it is important for developers (and others) to have “alone time” to be most productive.

At the end of the day, being located in a different time zone to a developer is not the biggest challenge so getting a successful result. By far the biggest challenge is finding someone who know’s how to understand your business objectives, and who knows how to do the job properly the first time.

If you can find someone like that, working around a difference in time zones is well worth it.