How to Schedule Meetings that Cross Time Zones

The modern Business Analyst collaborates all day long – meeting with subject matter experts, technical gurus, project leaders and stakeholders too numerous to count.  Quite often these colleagues are located elsewhere, potentially across the four corners of the earth.

Coordinating a live, long distance discussion could mean coping with multiple time zones and you must take into consideration the physical setting of each person attending. Your office network may enable you to find an open time slot on everyone’s calendar, but have you thought carefully where the scattered attendees will be?  When does their workday end and begin? What allowances are needed for mealtime? What time of day inconveniences the least number of people?

Since I joined the world of virtual BAs I’ve worked with numerous people across the continent and around the globe.  Collaborating with people in other parts of the world energizes me.   Addressing the challenges of conversations across time zones just comes with the territory. Here are some things I’ve learned about scheduling distributed live collaboration.

The Techniques of Distributed Scheduling

Even if you haven’t coordinated a distributed business meeting before, you can still appreciate the tasks required to align people and resources to be available concurrently. When planning a virtual meeting it’s best to limit the duration to about an hour, but otherwise it’s really not that different from planning to meet face to face.  Let’s take a closer look at how it’s done for a distributed meeting.

Align Schedules

In a corporate setting it is easy to compare availability across your invitation list with Lotus Notes or other internal shared calendar desktop tools. Freelancers are using cloud-based tools like Google calendar for the same purpose. With blocking features to indicate busy and non-working hours, these tools can pick out the common open timeslots for you.  However a shared calendar view becomes inadequate with vendors, partnered outsourcers, or other attendees that fall outside of the shared calendar network; their schedules remain a mystery.

The more wide-spread your collaborators, the more you will need to cross-reference invitee times of day before arriving at a set of choices.  Pick a few sensible time slots. Try to avoid commute times in any of the zones, since attendees on cell phones will reduce the listening quality for everyone on the call. Whether you chart it manually or use one of the tools listed later in this article, you’ll need an awareness of local holidays, mealtime customs, and other regional factors that might impact a workable schedule for your remote collaborators.

Be Considerate

Ask your collaborators what time slots they prefer and how to minimize inconvenience.  I used to throw a dart at my daily digest and hope everyone could make that time. Now I find that by conducting a preliminary survey I can also generate interest in the subject.  Respecting individual scheduling concerns is a positive step in relationship building, and when I solicit input on our agenda the stage is set for greater cooperation. If you don’t have the time to contact each collaborator individually, try one of the listed [free] cloud-based scheduling survey tools.

Channel Your Inner Event Planner 

Once the question of “when?” is resolved it becomes critical to gain commitment from your expected collaborators.  Lock in key players by finding the personal stake that ensures they show up.  Craft an invitation (or meeting agenda) that clearly defines purpose and expectations, the reasons to attend, and how to prepare.  Don’t forget instructions on how to join the group virtually and any required links and passwords.  I follow up with pre-meeting confirmations, reminders, and whatever personal touch will encourage your collaborators to be there and be ready to contribute.

Fulfill your promise to minimize inconvenience – know how you will address one-time or recurring inconvenience to your collaborators. Make special allowances in the agenda and take action to ease the impact. Lighten the atmosphere with a short game to release creativity and celebration when it’s time to recognize your successes. For some meetings I’ll coordinate synchronized meal breaks, with everyone munching breakfast or afternoon snacks according to their time zone.

Leverage Tools and Stop Wasting Time

A number of cloud-based tools offer features that help meeting leaders to cope with multiple time zones, and help invited participants to know when the meeting will start in their own time zone.  Here are three that have made my life easier:

When meeting with remote collaborators, above all, make sure the time together is necessary.  But when you do need to have a live conversation, try one of these tools to gain a global snapshot of comparative times and to survey for collaborator preferences.

Synchronize your global watches.  As BAs working virtually we must diminish the impacts of long distance collaboration. One way is by taking a more thoughtful attitude about scheduling choices and how they impact attendees.  Begin with a world view, offer an accommodating schedule, and give clear directions for when and how to join the conference.

Coordinating live meetings across the borders of time and space is all in a day’s work!

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Comments

  1. Vinicio Flores says

    I work w. a Dev Ops team distributed in Santa Clara, California – India – Costa Rica.

    It’s constantly hard to find a suitable time frame to meet live with India folks.

    Do you have any advice on this?

  2. Sue Hawkins says

    Great and timely article. It’s fascinating how minor adjustments help make virtual meetings thrive. I’ll check out your suggested tools. Thanks for the continued insight into being a Virual player.

  3. I’ve been thinking more about Adrian’s comment and wanted to share a couple more ideas for those times it seems impossible to not inconvenience someone:

    * Rotate the inconvenience. With a wide-spread group that meets on-line regularly, I’ve had the best results when we establish a scheduling cycle together that regularly shifts the after-hours requirement from one member to another. While a virtual team may have a great foundation and culture of cooperation, if the weekly meetings are always at midnight for some players, the teamwork will suffer.

    * Conduct sequential meetings for larger groups. If instead you are working with a number of people in different regions, segment the collaboration into smaller meetings that accommodate a regional attendance during their normal business hours. Hold the web or phone conferences one after another, carrying the work of one group into the next session. If you don’t want to host all the sessions yourself, enlist local group leaders to lead the group and publish results.

  4. Joan,

    This is a great article, and some really great tips. I particularly like “Doodle” — it’s a great way of finding a common time in diaries.

    One additional tip that I’ve learned (the hard way): Check for regional time-zone differences that you might not be expecting (e.g. “daylight savings time”). Different parts of the world start/stop observing daylight savings time on different dates… which means that one day you might be 5 hours ahead of a colleague, and then suddenly the next day you’re only 4 hours ahead! The best way I’ve found to check is using the World Clock Meeting Planner that you’ve listed above.

    Also — I fully support your tip of being considerate — I’m always amazed at how flexible colleagues can be when it comes to time zones. Building on this, I’d say “Don’t assume that people can only meet during office hours”. To give you an example, here in the UK we’re 5 hours ahead of Eastern Time. I’m always happy to meet in the evening, but my personal rule is “avoid the commuting hour” (i.e. I’d rather take a call at home in the evening… so an hour later is actually better for me!). As you quite rightly say, the key is to ask!

    Thanks for a great article on a really important topic!

    Adrian.

    • Thanks for commenting Adrian. Most definitely consider after hours alternatives when suitable. That brought to mind a challenge I had recently figuring out a live meeting time that suited team members in Seattle, London, and Melbourne. Something had to give.
      I always seem to be the one volunteering to work after hours, but lately I’ve come to terms with asking someone else to accept the inconvenience if that’s what makes the most sense. I make it a personal request, highlighting how the meeting is mutually beneficial. You’re right – responses are incredibly cooperative.
      I’m glad you found the article timely 😉 Joan

      • Can’t agree more Adrian and Joan. I work with a very distributed team and constantly grapple with keeping track of all the different time zones when scheduling milestones (my end of day may not be someone else’s end of day) and meetings. I started instituting early weeks so we can take turns working off-hours. I also created an app to remind myself when colleagues may be eating, and sometimes sleeping! http://www.abouttime.zone/time-zone-converter.html

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