Effective communication tips for operating a business across time zones

Effective communication tips for operating a business across time zones

Anton Gladkoborodov is the founder and CEO of Coub, an HD video-remixing platform. This article was co-written with Anastasia Popova, Coub’s Marketing Director.


With the internet facilitating global connectivity, it’s becoming easier for large companies to spread around the world, oftentimes with each branch focusing on a particular function and acting more or less independently.

A small startup with teams in multiple cities and at least an eight hour time difference will frequently face different obstacles. We’ve compiled a list of things we’ve learned as a result of running Coub, a 30-person startup with teams divided by the Atlantic Ocean (or the Pacific, depending from which side you look at it.)

While no startup is the same, hopefully these words of advice will prove flexible enough to benefit any startup looking to take their team global, or become more efficient at doing so.

1. Time is your main resource, so the more processes that can be executed without communication — the better

Smooth, build, manage and work on efficiency to cut unnecessary communication down to a minimum. Use task trackers where you’re able to assign projects to people, receive comments and see the work in progress.

For instance, for our design process we use Trello. Design is a ‘one-step-after-another’ type of work: concept-layout-copy-detailed layout-development — so Trello is perfect for the process.

Each new person in a discussion doubles its time. Like chefs in a kitchen, decisions can often be made more efficiently when there are fewer people involved– keep it to only necessary participants. If you are starting a discussion, include only those who really have something to do with the object of the discussion.

2. Keep your team informed

When things are getting done, keep your whole team updated, keeping everyone universally informed of things going on across the company.

A connected company makes for happy employees who feel included and plugged in to the overall direction, vision, and progress of the company.

3. You have more time to actually work, not talk

desk graph design

When there’s only two hours of working time shared between two time zones, allot this time to talk to each other. The rest of the day is all yours to work, no disruption. These extended work days create unique opportunities for extended hours of productivity, so take advantage of this rare opportunity!

While sometimes inconvenient, the cool thing about opposite time zones is that it creates two working days in one: The first, very early morning till mid-day; the second, evening till late evening.

Take these two “parts” of the day into account and split tasks accordingly, such as assigning tasks to staff in the second office to deliver the results by the end of their work day. This allows for two to four hours in the day for employees to catch up on their personal lives, like grocery shopping, doctor appointments, etc.

Though startup hours can be long and grueling, this mid-day break gives everyone an opportunity to refresh and enjoy some time outside of the office.

4. Cross-company culture

Both sides of the company should know that the other exists. Without a cross-company culture to ensure that each branch feel connected, one portion of the team may think they’re less important. So, share the everyday life between offices: parties, jokes, any events or internal memes.

Share what you do and why you’re doing it with the whole team. Once your other office knows what you do, your goals will become the same priority as theirs because everyone’s on the same page.

It’s easy to understand the goals and needs of a deskmate, but it’s more difficult to understand the same for someone 10,000 miles away. Check-ins should be done regularly; this also helps avoid any duplicate work unknowingly being completed by people in separate offices.

5. Trust more, control less

While it might feel uncomfortable being unable to swing by employee’s desks when they’re an ocean away, it’s ultimately good news. People don’t need constant supervision, they need to know what to do, and do it themselves. They’ll make their own mistakes and correct them, learning to be a better professional which ultimately benefits the company.

Having capable and self-motivated employees will eventually lead to automated components of the company, requiring less hand-holding and more time for you to focus on the bigger picture.

6. Avoid the communication trap with distance

When something important is brought up, the lack of personal contact can easily lead to endless discussions. Avoid it.

If you can’t avoid it, there should be a person responsible who steps in and makes the final decision. Time is money, and the more time saved on unproductive back-and-forths, the better.

7. One email equals to one day to respond

As a result, day-to-day business writing communications should consist of less questions, and more action statements. Rather than asking, “What time works for you?,” and waiting for a reply; suggest options, and you’ll get a firm answer in response, streamlining the communication process. Focus on making emails proactive and you’ll find yourself spending less hours in your inbox every day.

Some things can be hard to explain via phone or email, so use video calling services like Skype, Hangouts or FaceTime.

When you talk on the phone, you miss non-verbal cues that can sometimes lead to miscommunication. Depending on the decision, sometimes needing a face-to-face (whether in person or via video) is inevitable for certain circumstances.

8. Explore alternatives to email for quick conversations

Select your mode of communication based on the conversation. Quick question? Internet chat works. Longer discussion with follow-up questions? Hop on the phone.

9. It’s hard, but relax

Don’t wake up people when you need the answer “immediately.” Employees often have set routines based on their time schedules so avoid breaking their routine unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Respecting employees’ schedules makes for happier and more organized workers. Work/life balances should be regarded and kept intact whenever possible, regardless of the time zone differences.

10. Utilize your time together wisely

trust fall teamwork

During temporary (and likely rare!) reunions with the head office, schedule a meeting with key decision makers (division leaders) in person, narrow down everything that needs to be addressed with big questions. Focus on decisions regarding directions on where to go.

Details are easy and can be hammered out later; the overall concept is what the main focus of importance should be. Think big, talk big, go home.

Coub relies on several services to facilitate things across the time zone divide, including Google docs, Trello, Horizonate, Dropbox, and even a Clocks App for Mac to know what’s the time in US/Russia. Keep trying different solutions to see which work best for your company, and keep the above tips in mind to best cooperate at a global scale.

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