Juggling with timezone differences

We’ve been working as a remote team ever since we started up, and we’re no stranger to juggling the difficulties of working across timezones. But even so, having the team split across 3 continents during a project can be an unusually extreme challenge.

This is an extract from our most recent case study on our project with Mirror.

In the case of our most recent design sprints with Mirror, we had to make sure that the project could run flawlessly, and had to find a way to link up the following people:

  • Hiong, Arnas and Zsolt, working in Kuala Lumpur and Bali on UTC+8
  • Marcel, working from Spain on UTC+1
  • The Mirror team in their San Francisco office, on UTC-8

How we managed to work that way

The way we communicate on projects is something that we’ve continually refined and improved, to the point where (while still not quite at the point of perfection that we’ll always be striving to meet) it gives a very reliable backbone to any project we take on, regardless of which shipmates are on the team, and where they’re located.

Fortunately, we managed to make that happen here, too. Even if it did involve some adventurous late-night travel by Zsolt, who often had to relocate to a co-working space in the evenings for a call at midnight in Bali. That daily standup call, which took place in the afternoons in Europe, and the morning in San Francisco, was an important and consistent point of every day on the project.

But the timezone differences also held many advantages. Since Marcel, working on the development tasks on the project, was working from Spain and was about 9 hours ahead of San Francisco, he was particularly well-placed. In his morning, he was able to jump online and catch up with the rest of our team in Asia (late afternoon in Kuala Lumpur and Bali), catch up and collaborate, and spend the majority of the day making steady progress on the project. At the end of the day, the Mirror team appeared and could catch up with our progress, evaluate our results and define the objectives for the next day.

Tools to stay in sync

All of this wouldn’t have been possible with the right tools in our remote toolbelt. We used a bunch of different ones in order to stay in sync—each of them for a very specific purpose:

Slack
• Check-in/Check-out during the day
• A meeting room for all stakeholders and team members to have discussions
• Pinging people for small requests

Skype
• Daily standup meetings with the whole team
• Quick voice and video chats between team members
• Grabbing the Mirror team for urgent issues

Basecamp
• An email replacement. Used for documenting organizational and scheduling conversations
• Exchanging documents and assets
• Assigning occasional to-dos to the Mirror team to complete

Pivotal Tracker
• Mirror’s chosen project management tool for their own team
• Bug reports and task assignment to Hanno
• Giving an overview of app functionality in development

It’s tough but doable

Though we already have some years of experience working remotely, we still have to deal with new challenges every now and then, such as in this case. (You can read the whole case study about this project here)

But working asynchronously has always turned out to be beneficial for us because team members can work uninterrupted and focus (= more things get done). It is important however that people understand their goals and responsibilities, and that they communicate and stay in touch with others, even if they are not online.

Usually we accomplish this by doing daily stand-up calls. Additionally, we communicate our plans, problems and progress (PPP) in a shared document, so that everyone on the team knows what others are working on, in order to comment on their progress or understand their problems.

Sticking to certain rules, communicating in the open and being able to rely on each other have been the most important principles for us to make a project successful, and we believe that whichever way you are distributed across continents, that the right tools and guidelines can enable a remote team to be extremely effective.