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Project Communications Across Time Zones
By Francis Norman

One of the most readily apparent challenges facing the development of a communications plan for any international project is determining the best way for the project to communicate across time zones. This is a problem which changes in complexity and impact as the time zones spread out, but, regardless of the distance and difference, it is one which can have very a serious impact on the way the project is managed and communications performed.

  • With only one or two hours between locations the time zones issue barely exists, telephone calls can be made with little consideration for the time at the other location and meetings scheduled with relative impunity, but as the hours increase the problem progressively worsens.
  • Three and four hours difference can start to really bite into the project’s ability to have a conventionally structured communications plan typical of a collocated project, since morning in one location is the afternoon at the other, but at least there is sufficient overlap for both parties to be able to talk by phone or video for four to six hours a day, however, consideration for the time at each location is necessary so that one party or the other does not have constant early mornings or late evenings to accommodate the scheduling from the other location.

  • Once the difference goes up to six to eight hours, the gap becomes really inconvenient for normal business hours conversations, as it is generally outside of one location’s normal working hours so many discussions happen at the start or end of the business day, one party has to work outside of its normal working hours or the communications become more asynchronous, using email and voicemail instead of the telephone or video conference, which has an impact on the clarity of the message and the volume of communications.

  • More than eight hours means that all discussions are outside of normal business hours for someone, and, communications can really begin to fragment as fewer members of the project team get to participate in that most human form of communication, the spoken conversation, increasingly the communication becomes a once a week teleconference between key players, supported by email, which for complex international exercises is simply insufficient to avoid serious gaps. In establishing protocols for these weekly meetings it is necessary to consider that in the interests of fairness, the need to arrive early or stay late should be shared between locations so that everyone has at least some weeks of normal working hours.

Adding an additional wrinkle to the whole thing, is when the project is spread across more than 2 timezones. In this scenario, a great deal of planning must go into how the meetings and communications are structured both to be fair to the attendees and also to get the most efficiency from the meetings, it may be better to have several sub-meetings, each between only two parties, to let them work on their discussion points, then have an overall coordination meeting with only the key players from each location at a separate time. This may make the meetings more time efficient for the attendees and allow more people to participate, though clearly the final communication structure will be unique to both the project and the phase the project is at.

Francis Norman is currently a Regional Operations Manager in Perth, Australia. Francis maintains a professional blog, International Project Management Communications.