Illustration by Erik Blad
Illustration by Erik Blad

How to Build a Globally Remote Team That Really Works

It’s still yesterday for you.

Statistically speaking, you (like most of my Help Scout colleagues) are probably somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, I cling to the bottom of the planet in Australia, probably in your tomorrow.

That separation is about more than weather and the relative deadliness of the local wildlife.

Remote vs. really remote

In the last year, plenty of companies have jumped — or been pushed — into running a remote workforce. It is an undeniably challenging move to make, but there are plenty of resources and examples to learn from.

Often, though, “working remotely” really means “you can work anywhere within an hour or two of the timezone our office is in.”

Making remote work … work … looks very different when your team does not share core working hours. If you’ve been scared to hire people from distant time zones or are struggling to work effectively with people across the planet, then keep reading.

The challenges of geo-remote teams

Working with people all over the world presents additional complexity compared to having everyone within an hour or two of your own working day.

That’s especially true if most of the team is close in time with just a couple of outliers. There’s a sort of corporate gravitational effect where the mass of centralized people makes it harder for information to escape out to the outer reaches — and vice versa.

In speaking to other remote workers, some common themes arose:

  • The legal and financial complexities in employing/contracting and paying people in other countries.
  • Live “whole team” meetings are almost impossible. Europeans and Antipodeans live opposite days, so someone is going to be awake at an unholy hour.
  • Long waits for timezone crossover, slowing progress on tasks.
  • The Curse of Daylight Savings: Why are my meetings suddenly two hours earlier?! Who springs forward and who falls back, and when? And why?!
  • Unexpected holidays (why do Australians even celebrate the Queen’s birthday?)
  • Shorter weeks together: Your Friday is their Saturday, their Sunday is your Monday.
  • Getting people physically together incurs significant complexity and expense.

Jacob Lee “Everything having ‘next day’ turnaround can be exasperating!” – Jacob Lee, support professional

Wrapping your team around a spherical planet is not easy, but it isn’t all downsides.

Benefits of geo-remote teams

Given the challenges above, why should any company bother with hiring staff in more remote time zones?

Geographically remote teams bring a number of measurable benefits:

  • Access to talented people who live in other parts of the world (or who would like to). Building a diverse, talented, and engaged team is easier when you aren’t only looking at people close by.
  • Improvements required in communication, policies, and processes to work well for geo-remote staff also benefit people closer to the core.
  • Better time zone coverage for customer service and faster progress on projects that can be worked on around the clock.
  • Broader understanding of different cultures developed by working with people immersed in those cultures.
  • More flexibility for any staff who can’t or don’t want to work core “business” hours, since they will now cross over with folks in other timezones.

Companies that can work effectively — no matter where their teams are — have a true competitive advantage, particularly when normal office routines are disrupted by world events.

Of course, it takes more than hiring an Aussie designer or a Kiwi product lead to create an effective global team.

How to build an effective, time zone-agnostic team

Let’s assume that you’ve already done the hard work of creating an effective remote company that is working well. (If you haven’t, we’ve got plenty of advice for building a remote-first company culture to share.)

Creating a global cross-time zone team that can get the job done is a whole new level of complexity, and it takes deliberate effort from everyone involved, starting at the top.

As a company leader

Founders and executives set the standards for their companies, and the way they talk about and interact with the most remote folks in their company will shape the behavior of everyone else:

  • Do the work to enable hiring people in other countries. That might mean creating new legal entities, investigating contracting options, setting sensible compensation models, and finding effective payment options.
  • Share information. Require that information is made accessible to all relevant staff, not just to people online at the time of the discussion. Make sure your leaders are recording meetings and updating shared documents for everyone.
  • Protect time buffers. Allow time for geo-remote people to read and respond before making decisions.
  • Change up meeting times. Rotate key meetings through different time zones to allow convenient and real-time connection for everyone.
  • Ensure that pay and perks are fair. Work to offer equivalent perks and benefits to staff in any location. Help Scout, for example, pays a healthcare stipend to folks outside the U.S in lieu of providing health insurance directly.

Disha Mungra “It makes a huge difference to know that there isn’t a group of people who have special/different perks than you.” – Disha Mungra, Help Scout

As a people manager

When you have people on your team who work mostly (or entirely) outside of your own working day, it is challenging to build a strong working relationship. Here are some ways to help:

  • Know your time zones. Just being aware of what time (and day) it is for your team will mean a lot to them, especially when planning meetings and setting deadlines.
  • Clarify response times. If you’re sending a message to someone outside their working hours, be explicit about whether an answer is required immediately or if it can wait for the next business day.
  • Work hard on asynchronous communication. If someone can’t be in a meeting, can you record it? Can you write up a summary and share it with them?
  • Be aware of international holiday differences. Some holidays are assumed days off in the U.S. but not elsewhere and vice versa. Your team may still be working when you’re off — or be off when you expect them online.
  • Remember daylight savings. It’s painful for everyone, but a 6 a.m. meeting suddenly moving to 5 a.m. can be a deal breaker.
  • Make time for real-time connection. Protect space in your calendar to chat live during crossover hours with distant colleagues. That really helps build the relationship and understanding you will rely on for all your asynchronous communication.
  • Offer to meet outside your normal hours. Every now and then, offer to be the person who is up late or early, rather than always expecting it from the remote team.
  • Be an advocate for people who aren’t “in the room.” Ask how you can support the goals and requirements of people who can’t be present live.
  • Leave good handovers. Especially in a Slack-like environment, information can quickly scroll out of view. Remember to record key discussions and pass that information on through a summary in a dedicated channel, an intranet post, or by email.

Tess Dixon “I relish the chance to work with people from all around the world, and I think it makes our team better for having such varied backgrounds. But it means I need to build in extra time for scheduling anything we do want to do synchronously, like shuffling the team into random groups to share in-progress design work and get feedback. I can only do it semi-randomly as time zones allow.” – Tess Dixon, Condé Nast

Michelle Vasicek “I’ve learned when delegating tasks and such that I need to really over-communicate and make sure I ask clear questions or give detailed instructions — often a written note and/or a quick video if needed.” – Michelle Vasicek, AdLeg

As a colleague with geographically remote teammates

If you’re working during the core hours of your company and you have team members far away, you can really help to bridge the gap for them:

  • Advocate for inclusion. Remind people to include your colleagues in important meetings or ask that they be given a chance to contribute asynchronously.
  • Be precise and clear. Saying “We’re hoping to do it by spring” is just a little harder to parse than “We’re hoping to do it by April.” Similarly, you can write “Thursday (U.S.)” instead of just “Thursday.” Small tweaks go a long way.
  • Consider time zones. Build in buffer time for time zone differences when setting deadlines or requesting feedback.
  • Take note. Make note of any relevant information you come across during the day that might not otherwise reach your more remote colleagues so you can pass it on to them.

As a geographically remote person

When most of your team has a similar workday and you’re the time zone outlier, there are some extra steps you can take to do your best work:

  • Over-communicate. Your work does speak for you, but when you aren’t involved in all the real-time meetings and banter, it takes more effort to stay top-of-mind. Consider leaving end-of-day messages in common channels or updating your key coworkers on what your day has covered. Try using video messages too.
  • Manage your notification settings. Don’t rely on other people knowing what time it is; take charge of your notification settings so you don’t get woken by a 2 a.m. @here ping.
  • Put your holidays and national days in the calendar. Let people know when you won’t be around and what you’re up to.
  • Find some social options in your time zone. If you don’t have local colleagues, look for your town’s own community events to maintain social connections during the day. For me, that’s the (dubiously named) Siligong.
  • Make use of the flexibility you have. If you have to start early or work late to suit your team (and your work allows), use the middle of the day for yourself. Get some exercise, do some chores, or take a nap!
  • Batch your meetings. Creating blocks of uninterrupted time by getting all your meetings done in the morning is easy when that’s your only crossover time!
  • Be a little more self-promotional. Raise your own visibility by sharing what you are working on because there will be less opportunity for serendipitous discussion.
  • Take part in social Slack. Find the fun threads and add your own thoughts, even if it means being the one to revive a seven-hour-old thread. It will help connect you with your team.

Cheryl Spriggs “At Zapier you are encouraged not to have Slack on your phone. There are other people to jump in if there are fires when you’re not online. When someone sends a message, you look at their time zone and expect that they may not get back to you immediately, and that’s okay! We use Slack statuses to let people know you’re in a meeting, offline, or just on a quick break.” – Cheryl Spriggs, Zapier

Remote professionals share their favorite tech

In talking with remote workers for this article, I received several recommendations for tools to make work life easier. Here are the most common suggestions:

  • Loom or Soapbox are great for quick videos. Video is an excellent way to communicate ideas (and share your enthusiasm) when you can’t do it live, and these tools greatly reduce the friction of recording and sharing clips.
  • Slack Scheduler helps you post messages on Slack when your team is more likely to engage with them (and while you’re asleep). Slack’s also in the process of rolling out its own message scheduling feature.
  • Gmail’s schedule function does the same for your emails.
  • Every Time Zone or Spacetime take (most of) the pain out of time zone conversions. Google “time in [location]” for a real time safety check, too.
  • Calendly or YouCanBook.me let you control which parts of your day can be booked up by others and which can’t.

Ryan Klausner “We often record our meetings to share out for attendees who are unable to attend and use Loom to share presentations and prep for meetings across geographic zones.” – Ryan Klausner, Who Gives A Crap

Tamir Goldberg “Using a Slack message scheduler has worked wonders for me getting answers that I need during my off hours. It helps me post messages at a time when it won’t get buried.” – Tamir Goldberg, InVision

Keeping the remote in remote work

It is possible that, after reading this article, it sounds like a lot of hard work to keep a geographically distributed team on track. That is true, but it is also the reason that the companies who can do it well will gain an advantage over their competition.

The effort you put into building a truly remote team will pay off in increased flexibility and productivity for everyone, even if they work down the road from the office. And how else are you going to learn about the latest dangerous Australian animals?

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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