How to Work Productively in a Different Time Zone
So, you have a location independent job – or will soon pick up a new job that allows you to work remotely – and you’re thinking of moving overseas.
Firstly, congratulations! There are some definite lifestyle benefits to living overseas while retaining the steady income that comes with a job in your home country.
But there are also some downsides to working overseas. Depending on how far away from home you plan to move, working in a different time zone could be one of the biggest drawbacks.
Some time zones are easier to manage than others
If you are from Australia and plan to move to New Zealand or somewhere in Asia, for example, the time zone difference may not be too bad. At worst, you’ll be living in a time zone just a few hours behind or ahead of your colleagues and clients at home. That’s relatively easy to work around.
When moving from Australia to North America, things become a bit more complicated. If you’re living in the west coast of the United States or Canada, for example, you may only be five hours ahead of eastern Australia (although you’ll be a day behind due to the International Date Line – which could impact your weekends).
On the US east coast or South America, the time difference could be closer to 8, 9, 10 or even 11 hours. But because you’re effectively ahead in time, it’s still relatively easy to work at the same time as your colleagues Down Under by working in the afternoon or evening – should that be necessary.
But if you’re an Australian living in Europe, the Middle East or Africa, things become much harder. Why? Because you would normally be asleep during Australian business hours. During the southern hemisphere winter/northern summer, for example, Australian business hours are from 11pm until 7am in the Central European time zone. Ouch!
If you still need to work during normal Australian business hours each day, living in Europe or Africa therefore isn’t so practical in the long term! There’s not much point moving overseas for lifestyle reasons if you constantly end up working all night. But if you’re lucky enough to have a job where you set your own hours, this makes things a bit easier.
How to manage being asleep during your home country’s business hours
If you’re living in a completely different time zone to your co-workers or customers, it’s inevitable that people may try to contact you while you’re asleep.
At times you may feel pressured to take phone calls or attend meetings during the middle of the night. But you should avoid doing this unless there’s an emergency. Getting a good night’s sleep is vitally important to your health, and frankly, taking work-related phone calls at 3am is not fun!
Here are a few specific tips for managing working in time zones where business hours don’t overlap…
1. Skew your regular work schedule
Try to plan your routine so there is at least a couple of hours of overlap between business hours in your home country, and your own working hours.
This could mean, for example, that you work each day between 6am-2pm, or 1pm-9pm, in order to overlap with the start or end of your home country’s business day.
2. Schedule meetings and calls in advance at mutually agreeable times
When I was working in Australia, my boss would call me ad-hoc a few times per week whenever he needed to speak to me. This wasn’t practical when I was living in Europe and he was still in Australia, so we would schedule a phone call at the same time every week – generally during my morning and his afternoon.
3. Set expectations by informing your customers and colleagues of your location and office hours
Often, while living overseas I would receive calls and messages from customers during the night because they were simply unaware I was asleep.
Once you’ve decided on your regular business hours, stick to those hours and inform the people that may need to contact you. (Again, you’ll need to ensure there is some overlap between your office hours and theirs – telling your boss they may only contact you between 9pm and 5am may not go down very well!)
If you’re communicating by email, an easy way to do this is by listing your office hours in your email signature.
4. Set your phone to Aeroplane Mode or “Do Not Disturb” while you’re sleeping
This will prevent your sleep from getting constantly interrupted by phone calls and message alerts (and is good practice even if you’re not working in another time zone!).
If you’re worried about missing important phone calls during the night, you can set up “Do Not Disturb” mode on most smartphones to screen calls and allow any deemed to be important.
Time zone differences can also work to your advantage
Although irregular office hours and time zone differences can be a disadvantage for digital nomads, businesses can also take advantage of having staff situated in different locations.
If you’re regularly working during what would be overnight hours in the country of your employer, this allows for 24-hour staff coverage. While your colleagues sleep, you can be on hand to deal with any emergencies, or to allow your business to offer 24-hour customer support. (If you’re trying to convince your employer to let you work overseas, that could also be a great selling point!)
While I was living in Europe and working for an Australian employer, I established a fairly solid routine that used the best of both worlds. I did have to wake up a little earlier than I would normally, but this allowed me to make phone calls and attend scheduled meetings early in the morning while Australians were still at work.
By my lunchtime, most Australians were going to bed. This meant I could write uninterrupted during the afternoon. I would stop receiving phone calls after lunch, and in a way there was actually less pressure because I knew everyone else was sleeping.
As a journalist, working “overnight” also allowed me to prepare completely up-to-date articles for publication as soon as my Australian readers woke up in the morning. In fact, in a way this gave our organisation an edge over other local competitors.
Find a coworking space and make it easy for people to contact you
If you’re working remotely, you may consider renting a desk at a co-working space. That way, you’ll have company and other people to talk to while the rest of your colleagues are asleep.
Personally, I also find I’m more productive when working around other people on the same circadian rhythm. And anyway, attending a co-working space is more fun than sitting at home!
My final tip if you’re working abroad is to make sure people can easily contact you.
If you’re just using email, that’s easy enough. But if you’re taking phone calls, it can be costly to use your usual SIM card overseas. Likewise, if you only have a local phone number in the country where you’re living, this could place a cost-burden on those trying to reach you. Customers may choose not to call you, meaning you could miss out on sales.
An easy workaround is to set up a local phone number in your home country that is connected to your Skype account. There is a small annual fee for this, but such a subscription will allow people to call you regardless of where you are in the world – and there won’t be any burdensome international roaming charges for you or for them.