Remote Time Zones Post Mortem

I finished my time working from Australia on May 10, making it just over three months of that I spent working from a siginificantly different (8+ hours) time zone than many of my coworkers. In my last post discussing this topic, I covered some of the pain points this time difference created, and I would like to discuss what worked well for me and what might have been better during that time.

The first thing that worked well for me was do-not-disturb mode on my phone and on Slack. I turned my phone to do not disturb between 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM, meaning no digital notifications will wake me up while I was sleeping. I also played around with more strict bounds on Slack specifically, but I found this wasn’t very important since most of my Slack messages came while I was sleeping anyway. The goal of this was to ensure that I was maintaining a healthy sleep pattern and taking care of myself. This was a very positive change for me, and I plan to continue the pattern on my return to the States.

Leaning into asychronous forms of communication proved crucial to maintain my productivity. In my previous post, I discussed the difficulty in finding overlapping time with my coworkers when our times were greater than 8 hours apart. In the end, this never got easier. I believe the best way to tackle this problem is to limit the need for the overlap and focus on asynchronous forms of communication.

Because my team relies heavily on Slack for our day-to-day discussions, I had to find a better way to use Slack in a more asynchronous manner. The do not disturb settings were helpful here, as I told my coworkers that if they had a question specific to me, they could always send me a direct message at any time of the day. If it was some point when I wasn’t available, the message could sit in the private channel until I was next online. When I logged on, I used Slack’s “unread messages” channel to go through each message individually, responding directly or in a public channel if it was appropriate. This allowed me to treat Slack more like an email inbox than as a realtime chat mechanism. I believe Slack isn’t the ideal tool to solve this problem and would be curious to explore other tools, like Basecamp, but that would require a shift in my whole company’s, or at least my team’s, patterns.

Along the same lines of asynchronous messaging, I found it much more important to schedule time to read through any pull requests or specification documents each day before I logged off. These were great forms of asynchornous communication, but if I wasn’t participating in them, as I often forgot to at first, then it would mean that my coworker might end up waiting two full work days for my input (the day they released it and the day after, before I logged back on). I quickly recognized how quickly this could hinder the velocity of the whole team, especially if I was the subject matter expert on some part of our domain. I got better at this, and added a reminder to my calendar in the second half of my day to remind myself to go through these sorts of things.

A major downfall of the time difference was the difficulty in planning recurring meetings. I had one day each each week where my work day began at 5:30 AM to allow for meetings with my team. However, if something happened, such as a rescheduled company-wide meeting conflicting with my other meetings, I was thrown into a chaotic situation trying to reschedule multiple meetings that conflicted. My suggestion for this is to schedule such meetings for a time that it is highly unlikely anything else will happen. Check the company calendar, evaluate when they normally having meetings, and avoid those times. If regular meetings like this are important to your company’s culture, I suggest going a step further and putting them on a regular schedule and sticking to them. Making these meetings consistent allow for your whole company to do their best to be present and feel included.

Along with starting days early once per week, I began this experience with one recurring meeting planned for the last Friday of the sprint, which was on my Saturday. Luckily, I was able to work with my coworkers to move this meeting from Friday to Monday, and we were able to get more productivity out of it when starting the week than when finishing it. This sort of conflict should be discussed as a team, and it will be different for everyone.

Another challenge during my time in Australia was diffuclty achieving a sense of belonging in the company. My company is still relatively new to distributed teams, and we are all still learning how to keep the same sort of culture as when we were all colocated. We have a company-wide weekly standpoint and a town hall every other week that are meant to allow everyone to get a high level idea of what is happening across the company and create a connection between teams that might be working on different projects. However, because of the time difference, I was generally unable to attend any of these meetings, even just on the video call. Instead I read the recaps of these gatherings, which was helpful but didn’t create the same connection for me. We are working on ways to better record these meetings, allowing for anyone to watch them later, if they were unable to attend for whatever reasons. I think this could really help, and I am excited to dig into the concept. With relatively little overlap with my coworkers, it was also more difficult to shoot the breeze and participate in “water cooler” talk on Slack. I’ve heard of Basecamp’s company practice of posting things about what you did over the weekend each week, and think something like this could help others as well.

All in all, I appreciated my opportunity to live outside of the States and continue working with my team, and I have learned a lot from this experience. However, I don’t believe I would choose to work from such a disparate time zone again without certain things being different. For starters, I want to experiment with more of the points I made previously in this post and really nail down the best practices. It would also be easier if more of my team were globally distributed, such that more coworkers were tackling the same issues and considering the same solutions. Finally, I believe it would help if I had a more stable lifestyle while working abroad. Because I did not settle roots while in Australia, I was missing the stability of spending time with friends or going for regular workouts, which really helps keep you mentally sound to get work done.