A look at how one team structures development work (and meetings) across a 10-hour time difference
If you have been involved in a large software development project, there is a good chance you were working with teams across time zones. You are also probably familiar with people complaining about how frustrating late-night Skype calls are and how much better it would be if the developers were sitting in the same office. These woes are common for teams working across borders. So are time zone differences a liability when it comes to productivity?
The answer is quite the opposite. Working across time zones, if done well, can really add to the productivity of the team. At VenturePact, we have experienced it firsthand. Our team now spans three different time zones with a spread of over 12 hours, and we absolutely love it this way. Though things were a little choppy in the beginning, today, after a lot of trial and error, we have built a process that allows us not only to work smoothly but also a lot more efficiently.
To get a better understanding of our process, let’s imagine a scenario where your product team is based out of the US and the development team is sitting in India. The time difference between the two places is nine hours and 30 minutes. This means by the time one team gets to work, the other team is out of office. So how can you ensure not just smooth operations but also achieve increased productivity?
Cycling work flows
We find that working with teams in different time zones requires a cyclical system, where Team A hands work over to Team B by the end of the day, so they can continue the work and then hand it back to Team A the following day. For example, the software development team in India can complete their sprints during the day. They can then hand off the work to the US-based product owners who can go through the product, do some testing and give feedback. The India team can then incorporate the feedback they received overnight.
And so the work flows in a cycle. The idea is to divide the work in a manner that both teams can complement each other.
Sounds simple, but this is easier said than done, as we found out. Here are some insights into our process that may help you build your own system for cycling work:
Develop clear product roadmaps
A clear roadmap is even more critical in a remote setting. You can’t just shout across the room to get questions answered in real time, so you need to have immense clarity of scope. Otherwise, you run the risk of having the team on the other end waste an entire day waiting for a response. At VenturePact, before we start development, we document each product feature via high-fidelity wireframes and user experience maps. This leaves little to no room for confusion.
Divide tasks to avoid communication bottlenecks
Despite the cyclical flow, you can’t treat teams as entirely co-dependent in case there’s no communication for a day or two (whether that’s due to meetings, weekends, holidays, etcetera). Tasks must be clearly divided. That way, if for some reason the US team is unable to test and give feedback on a product feature, the development team in India has an independent roadmap that they can continue executing on.
Try daily (remote) stand-ups
For us, a stand-up is a short call around 10-20 minutes done once a day to bring everyone in the team on the same page. This gets the team to sit down, align their goals and clear any confusion. We discuss what was done that day, the challenges faced and solutions used to overcome them, and the goals for the next working day.
Don’t enforce odd work hours
In the beginning, we thought we were lucky that our remote team was flexible when it came to working odd hours. However, we soon realised that this was adversely affecting their personal lives. Calls on the dinner table and during bed times can take their toll on relationships, which eventually ends up eating into productivity. To cope with this, we rotate meetings: have one meeting in the early morning, another in the afternoon and one in the evening. Teams can join these meetings based on what works best with their time zone, so no one team is at a disadvantage.
Get Face Time
We learned that audio chat really can take away from the personal nature of the conversation. Facial expressions like smiles (and frowns) add to the conversation and help build stronger relationships. We started using a tool called Sqwiggle that allows our team to be “on air” continuously.
Train in the art of scheduling
I can’t count how many times we have scheduled a meeting for 9PM, only to have the team on the other end think that it was at 9PM in their time zone too. We are now extra conscious while outlining meeting times. A 9PM meeting should ideally be communicated like 9:00 PM EST (Monday) | 6:30 AM IST (Tuesday). If your time zone math is weak, World Time Buddy can come in quite handy.
Everything said, at the end of the day, it’s the temperament of the team that makes remote work across time zones successful. Everyone needs to be patient and empathetic while adapting to the new working style. But once you have optimised the system that works well for your team, I think you’ll find that a cyclical workflow improves your team’s morale and productivity.
Pratham Mittal is the co-founder of VenturePact, a marketplace that helps companies find and engage with prescreened software development firms; he previously founded Newsance, and worked in Product at Host Committee.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organisation comprising the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship programme that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.
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