Monday, 3 February 2014

When working in different time zones is a good thing

I've recently been working with a team in a time zone seven hours away from mine. While this type of collaboration can often be a frustrating process of missed meetings and miscommunications, it has actually been surprisingly effective. In fact the vast majority of difficulties we have encountered have occurred due to the lack of being able to hold extended face to face meetings. However, given that everyone involved is spread across four locations this would have not been regular even if we were all in the same time zone.

So why has the time difference worked well in this instance? I think part of the success has been due to the type of work we are doing. We are currently writing a document together that requires revisions and reactions from team members. Generally, reading, commenting on and revising the document takes around three hours.

However, as anyone who has worked with multiple contributors knows, multiple people commenting at  the same time leads to a mess of incompatible suggestions and versions. This means you either have to deal with the mess of reconciling incompatible document versions or wait until each person finishes with their changes before someone else starts.

Being in different time zones actually improves this process because each side of the team tends to wake up to a new draft from the other side without having to spend working time waiting for it to arrive.

The key factor here is that the ideal length of independent work time (on this project) is fairly close in size to the time zone difference. If the ideal independent work time was a lot shorter, then there would be large stretches of underutilised time waiting for the other side to do their work. In this case, being in the same time zone would work much better.

The stretches of projects where long meetings are necessary fit better within a single time zone as they involve a continuous conversation backwards and forwards that gets greatly slowed down if each message has to wait a day for a reply.

Similarly, if the ideal length of independent work time was a lot longer than the time zone difference, then time zone wouldn't matter at all. For instance, the time zone differences between me and the journals I submit to is not at all relevant because the conversation with editors and reviewers tends to take place on the scale of weeks and months.

So what could this anecdote mean for the wider world? Well, it might suggest that we would expect information industries to be spaced around the world according to the size of tasks that are required to be done at each stage of a process. For instance, translation or editing agencies would be well placed several hours away from the sources of demand for these services.  An Indian editing firm might be able to offer overnight editing services for US firms.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone has looked into this more generally or if this mechanism holds outside of the particular case here.

  •  I'm explicitly saying that the success of cross-time zone working is dependent on the type of task being performed and its requirement for parallel versus serial processing. I don't think that time zone differences are preferable in all cases.
  • As usual this is written as a piece of speculation to open a debate and is clearly not a piece of carefully researched academic writing