Ahhh, the glamorous life of a part-time digital nomad. Each year I spend a few months overseas, traveling and living the backpack lifestyle. Working while traveling can be the ultimate dream, but there’s also the potential for a lot of problems. When your clients are located in a different time zone, like a really different time zone, you quickly learn how to make adjustments to your life, in order to make the relationship work. Because if you don’t, it’s too easy to get stuck in time zone hell.
To maintain my moniker of a part-time world traveler, I spent winter 2016 in Europe, living in Berlin for all of November. I lived through my birthday and the U.S. presidential election in the German capital. It was an emotional time.
While in Berlin, I also gained two new clients—one needing my help in editing a research study under a tight deadline.
Now I’ll be frank, I don’t like editing on a deadline because there’s only so much editing a girl can do. It’ll quickly wear your brain out. I’m also a morning person, I do my best, most efficient work between 7 and 10 am. That’s a problem when editing studies because typically the researchers are still writing it mere days before submission. Woe is the editing life.
But there was a really bright light with me being in Berlin and the client being stateside. When they went to bed, it was my morning. I could edit all day and send the edits back to the client in my afternoon, just as they got back up and were starting to write again. We worked like cogs in a machine. The efficiency greatly satisfied my type-A heart.
What would normally cause late nights and a lot of unwanted stress, worked beautifully because I was overseas and eight hours ahead of the rest of the team. This is remote work at its best.
Beach time bungles
I spent a week in Florida in February collecting seashells, eating the best doughnuts in existence, and reading at least a book a day. I also put in a few hours each afternoon writing and scheduling client appointments (for after my vacation).
Little did I know at the time, I booked every appointment for eastern time (Florida) when I live in the central time zone (Texas). Every single meeting was scheduled for the wrong time.
I was in time zone hell.
But, I learned something new. Google calendar has a setting that you can choose your home time zone and then appointments will always be scheduled in that time zone unless you choose otherwise.
It was a total facepalm moment, but I also learned a new tool to add to my arsenal for seamlessly working across time zones and maintaining a work-life balance while traveling the world.
My arsenal of tools and tips
I wouldn’t trade the ability to locate my office anywhere in the world, I think it’s just the coolest part of the technological age. I’ve written articles from a hammock in Indonesia and brainstormed tips from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without learning how to make time zones work for me.
I’ve written articles from a hammock in Indonesia and brainstormed tips from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without learning how to make time zones work for me.
With these tips in my back pocket, I hope there will be many, many more time zone adventures.
Let your phone do the work. That smartphone in your pocket is good for so much more than Candy Crush, selfies, and Instagram. I’m certainly guilty of spending way too long scrolling through feeds and panging with wanderlust, but it’s time to put that phone to a better use.
Your clock app is your best friend when working with clients across time zones. Use the world clock to know what time it is wherever your client is located. There are plenty of other apps and website that can help you do this, but I find this one to be the simplest, and, it’s always with me. I mean, who leaves their phone at home anymore?
Create calendar invites. This one has saved me many a time. And screwed me when I don’t use it. Always, always, send a calendar invite to clients when working across time zones. This will guarantee that you’ve got the correct time and that you both know when you’re actually going to meet.
Check, check, and double-check. Oh, ye who think a one-hour time conversion is simpler than an eight-hour one. The shorter the time change, the more likely I am to screw it up. My brain likes to convert the wrong direction when I’m dealing with just an hour or two.
When you schedule a meeting with a client in a different time zone, check and double-check that you’ve done your math correctly.
Watch deadlines. A warning to anyone who is working with a client halfway across the globe. One client in India was 12 hours ahead and another in Australia was 15 hours ahead. Whew.
If you’re not yet aware of this, writers like to procrastinate. I had to learn with these clients that the due date they requested was the day before in my time zone. With a major time difference, you may have to submit work early or structure your day differently to get work in on time.
Have patience with response times. The digital age brought with it the ability to receive immediate responses. I think for all of our health, we need to cool this expectation.
For pertinent emails, even while traveling, I try to get back to clients within 24 hours. That being said, if someone doesn’t get back right away, cool it. It’s ok. Not everyone is always online. It doesn't mean they're not working.
Be aware. Be aware and sensitive to the fact that you might be starting your day when someone else is ending theirs. As a freelancer and part-time digital nomad, this happens to me year-round, even when I may be in the same time zone as a client.
I try to be sensitive to clients who work a traditional 9-5 day, but I don’t always work those hours. Sometimes I’m up early and working, sometimes I’m overseas, and sometimes I work late into the evening. I try to work 40 hours within seven days, but some weeks I don’t. The luxury of being my own #girlboss is that I don’t have to hold to traditional hours.
Communicate. When you can’t just have a quick chat over the coffee pot, it’s important that communication is clear and concise and empathetic. And seriously, with so many choices in how to communicate, there’s really no excuse.
Communicating with a remote team can happen synchronously—over the phone or video call—or asynchronously with email, Slack, or Google Hangouts chat. And those are just the ones I’ve thought of off the top of my head. There’s an endless number of services, apps, and websites that “make communicating easier.” All you have to do is use them.
There are benefits to both modes of communication and I like to have both for clients that I work with long-term. It’s nice to have periodic check-in meetings over the phone or video call, but I like to schedule them ahead of time and keep them to 15 minutes. If I’m in a creative mode and a client calls me, I’m all confuzzled and have a hard time answering their questions.
And, need I really say it? But, communicate with your clients if you’ll be changing time zones. Ugh. Duh.
Don’t forget the importance of face-to-face meetings. It’s likely that if you’re working with a client across multiple time zones, there won’t be much opportunity to meet face-to-face. But, if there is, make it happen.
For teams that work remotely, it’s a great idea to schedule one or two annual meetings where everyone relocates and meets in person. Many remote teams schedule their annual get together around a conference. One stone, two birds.
Tools you need. I was going to put together a fabulous list of all the great tools that are out there for working across time zones, and then they did it for me. Check this out.
Always state the time zone. Anytime you’re scheduling a meeting, state the time of the meeting with the time zone. That gives the client the opportunity to make adjustments before everyone’s calendar fills up.
If you’re working with a remote team, it might be even easier to give the time of the meeting in Coordinated Universal Time or UTC. Then, everyone who is attending the meeting will convert to their own time zone.
Rotate suffering. When working with a remote team, it’s important to rotate the suffering. It’s likely that someone on the team will be inconvenienced by the time that a meeting is scheduled. Whether they have to get up early or stay at work late or even get up in the middle of the night, someone will suffer.
Try to rotate the time when meetings are scheduled so that one person isn’t always inconvenienced. This helps to bond a remote team and create empathy between team members.
Take copious notes. When working across time zones, it’s likely that you’ll be on meetings at strange times of the day. I’ve found that I’m not always at my best during weird hours and so my notes become all the more important.
Have someone take notes to share with the group to make sure everyone gets all of the same information, even if they were half asleep during the call.
Be aware of cultural differences. There’s a major difference between work habits in Europe, the U.S., Scandinavia, and Southeast Asia. Some regions take lunch at different times, take longer breaks, or don’t work traditional hours.
Be very sensitive to cultural differences around work, time off, and holidays.
It’s also important to be aware of any language barriers that clients might have. When there is a language barrier, it just takes a little extra time to make sure both parties understand what is expected.
Be present. If you choose to work with a team that’s partially remote, be aware of presence disparity. When some people are meeting in person and others are calling in, it can create communication issues. Be sure that those team members who aren’t physically present get time to talk and contribute to the meeting as much as those that are in the room.
Use 5-minute or 15-minute check-in meetings. Some of the most effective meetings I’ve had with clients take just five or 15 minutes. I love quick 15-minute seshes. It allows me to connect with a client, show my face, discuss pertinent details, and then move on with our day. I find these meetings to be the least disruptive and the most efficient.
I love quick 15-minute seshes. It allows me to connect with a client, show my face, discuss pertinent details, and then move on with our day.
The world is a changin’ and working across time zones is becoming more and more common for different industries. Whether you’re putting together a remote team, working with a digital nomad, or have officers across the world, I hope these tips and my hard-learned lessons help you out.
Original illustration by Violeta Noy.