Time, Relativity and Distributed Companies

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
-Albert Einstein

One of the most difficult parts of communication within a fully distributed company is dealing with timezones. I can’t count the number of times that someone has emailed me asking “Can we have a meeting at 10 a.m.?” The obvious question here is which 10 a.m. are you asking about? Are you asking about your 10 a.m. or my 10 a.m.?  Unfortunately, it feels pedantic to ask the person to clarify what they mean, but it matters if you want everyone to show up at the same moment in time!

As I’ve mentioned before, we use Slack in place of meetings for a lot of internal communication, but we do still need to jump on phone calls from time to time. One of the skills that I’ve had to learn when trying to setup meetings is to be very explicit about the time that you mean. Think it’s easy? Try this quick little quiz. Figure out what time it is right now in the following U.S. cities, without using a map:

  1. Las Vegas
  2. Nashville
  3. New Orleans
  4. Phoenix
  5. Detroit
  6. Cleveland
  7. Louisville
  8. Pittsburgh
  9. Milwaukee
  10. Boise

I’m betting that while you might have fairly reasonable guesses, you’re not 100% positive on all of them. A few of them (like Phoenix) are particularly tricky! My recommendation is that when working with people in different timezones, it’s best if you declare the time and timezone not only for yourself but for the person you’re trying to invite. For example, let’s say that you are located in Austin, Texas and I am located in Portland, Oregon, and I want us to have a meeting at 11 in the morning. (Portland is in the Pacific Time Zone and Austin is in the Central Time Zone). I would probably ask you something like this:

     “Are you available for a call at 11:00 a.m. Pacific (1:00 p.m. Central)?”

By communicating it this way, I’m communicating to you that:

  1. We are not both in the same timezone
  2. I would like to talk to you at 1:00 in the afternoon
  3. It will still be 11:00 in the morning for me

This might seem like an obvious thing, but by being explicit, it helps remove any ambiguity and improves the overall quality of the communication. It also removes any assumption that the person you’re communicating with understands what timezones different cities are located in. The most important skill that you can develop in a distributed organization is your ability to communicate, and one of the easiest ways to improve is to become better at communicating time and timezones when talking to people.

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