Tuesday, 19 December 2006

How to cope with timezones

"How can you manage your cross-cultural teams at MySQL, with people from over 25 different countries, with a variety of nationalities, native languages, religions, political beliefs, and value systems? And how can you get anything done when four out of five MySQLers work out of their home office, not meeting regularly face to face?"

I would lie to you if I said that the above issues are easy. They aren't. And that is why people frequently ask me those questions. Yet, the main challenge is not cultural diversity or virtual offices. The main challenge is timezones.

My direct reports work in my own timezone (Central Europe), but also on the US East Coast, on the US West Coast, and in Australia. This covers most of the timezones I actively work with, with the exception that I also have frequent calls with my colleagues in Finland (on Eastern European time), and sometimes with the UK and Malaysia.

The maths here doesn't work out that well. The gap between Cupertino and Munich is nine hours, which gives us exactly zero hours of common working time. Not a lot.

In practice, this means that most meetings are scheduled in the evening. Monday evening from six onwards is the Management Team conf call, which lasts for one hour to one and a half. Tuesday evening from eight onwards is the Development Management Team conf call, one hour but sometimes more. Sprinkled through Monday evening to Thursday evening are conf calls with various teams and subteams.

It may be rude of me, but whenever anybody from California suggests a meeting "Friday morning" (their time zone, of course), I say "sure, if the next meeting is Monday morning", making clear that I refer to my timezone. As this computes to Sunday evening for them, they are usually quick to retire and suggest an alternative to their Friday morning.

So far, so bad. It figures that regular conf calls that usually involve a majority of people on California time should be in the European evening. However, this is not the end of the story. Going with meetings in the Californian morning only will, mildly put, lead to suboptimal performance from European teams and employees -- unless they are extreme evening people, veritable night owls.

So what is my recommendation?

Actually, let's go back to another regular Weekly Conf Call that I am on. It is Tuesday mornings at seven, my time. Our CEO, from Finland quite as I am, has a fundamental understanding for timezone issues and was willing to schedule the Community Conf Call in his evenings, dragging a few other Californians along for a Community update from ten to eleven Monday evening.

This worked wonders!

It is not as if I couldn't have meetings in my evenings. I can listen in, and my level of participation is usually not deteriorated by more than 20-40 % compared to if the meeting had been during working hours. I can even lead meetings, with the same timezone loss of 20-40 %. All of this is of course provided that, at the time of the meeting,

  • I don't have any evening events of a business nature (like I will tonight),

  • I am not having dinner,

  • I don't spend time with my family, and

  • I don't have any private evening engagements.

However, a good, efficient meeting isn't over when the chair says "see you next week same time". That's when the real work starts. And that is when I am at a real disadvantage, late in the evening.

The wonders I referred to was about the feeling of relief and anticipation when one of the Community Conf Calls ended at eight in the morning. The children had just gone to school, I was home alone. It was getting to full daylight outside. We had orally resolved a few tricky issues, and ideas on some remaining tough problems were brewing in my head. What a feeling to be able to get to work on them right away! I wrote the meeting notes. I wrote a proposal, for three hours, in detail, which has later on been approved and implemented. There is not any chance whatsoever that I would have been able to put in those hours if the meeting had ended in the evening, with dinner, with family and with my biological daily rhythm.

This is what I wrote to thank the Californians staying up late for the meeting:

[.. lots of stuff on the proposal itself ..]

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone in California for sharing the burden of doing off-business-hours meetings. Believe me, I know what it is like!

The benefit of the time-of-day on productivity is huge. The effects don't show as much during the meeting, but directly afterwards. I have now, five calendar hours after the meeting ended,

a) had breakfast while thinking about the meeting
b) planned and written a detailed proposal in item 1
c) written the meeting notes covering most relevant issues
d) handled the usual unavoidable interruptions (Skype with Colin, Lenz, IRC with mmj and the build team, a phone call with Bertrand, a private phone call)

Had we had the meeting yesterday evening my time, I would have

a) written lousy or no notes last evening
b) forgotten >50 % of the meeting overnight
c) had something else on the top of my mind this morning
d) at most written a very general proposal this morning

i.e. it would have been very likely for us to re-heat the same old arguments next meeting, as opposed to progressing.

So this is why I think we will be more productive and less stressful if we even out the evening burden between California and Europe: Meetings are bearable at odd hours, but active, concentrated solitary work (such as working out proposals based on freshly discussed ideas) needs to happen at peak time.

Don't get me wrong. I do work in the evenings. I do so out of my own free will, and I enjoy it. But I do it only when it harmoniously fits in with the concept known as Having A Life, i.e. when it does not unduly intrude upon meeting with people outside MySQL. And having a schedule or a deadline does intrude upon that harmony. Having an element of have to (have to take notes, have to make a proposal right now) makes for an improductive, frustrated Kaj, if this requires me to work in the evenings. Some such meetings are OK, but not all, and we need to spread the burden.

Worst of it all is to be called by European colleagues in the late evening. I probably shouldn't name names, because I am sure our founders Monty (Eastern European timezone) and David (Central European timezone) prefer to see their names mentioned in more favourable contexts. And I understand that they are examples of human beings with another daily rhythm than mine. Try chasing up Monty from bed for a meeting at 8, or even 9!

Drawing my conclusions on how to cope with timezones, I arrive at seven interdependent items which are not in any way specific to MySQL but applicable to any company where people work in different timezones:

  1. Set clear expectations about the extent to which people are to work other times than regular business hours.

  2. The ideas brewing in the heads of meeting participants have a half-life. The ideas need to be noted in writing immediately, or risk being lost due to dinner, family interruptions, and sleep.

  3. Some individuals like to work in the mornings, others in the evenings, depending on personality and regardless of time zone.

  4. Spread out the burden of having to work at inconvenient times of day.

  5. Make sure that the meeting ends during the peak working hours of those participants who get the most Action Items. If you're the boss, stay up late. If you're the scribe or subordinate, don't have a bad conscience for asking others to stay up late.

  6. Be considerate of those who meet at inconvenient hours. Thank them. Respect their Have A Life factor. Respect their tiredness.

  7. Say "good evening", if you greet somebody in their evening. "Good morning, Edwin" when it's morning for me but evening for Edwin shows little respect for Edwin staying up late.

Summary: Show respect to people in other timezones! Spread out the burden of meeting at awkward times! And pick a time so that those who get the most action items have their working day ahead of them!


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