6 Tips to Manage a Product Team That Spans Time Zones

Here’s a conundrum for you.

The first tenet of the Agile Manifesto states that teams developing software should value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” One of the 12 Agile Principles makes this point even more explicitly: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

But if your cross-functional product team is like many in today’s organizations, that team spans multiple cities, maybe multiple countries, possibly even a couple of different cultures—and definitely several time zones.

The fact that you can now build a product team with members all over the world is amazing. It means you can tap into the best (and most affordable) talent literally wherever you find it. You’re no longer limited to candidates who live within a reasonable driving distance to your office.

But how can you make a globally distributed team work smoothly and efficiently when, if it’s 10am in your office and you’re all geared up to host a cross-functional-team meeting, it’s also…

  • 6pm for your development team in the Czech Republic,
  • 4am the next morning in Australia, where your “Rest of World” marketing team is based,
  • 5pm in Cork, where your EMEA sales reps operate,
  • and 10:30pm in India, where a few of your key development consultants live?

Trying to lead a product team that spans time zones can be difficult. So here are our best ideas to make it work.

1. Don’t rely only on email for team communications.

You might not always be able to communicate with your globally distributed team in real-time, either by phone or video call. But when you need to communicate asynchronously—where you send a message and wait for a response—avoid the temptation to use email. Here’s why:

It’s a safe bet that everyone on your team uses the same work email address for all sorts of business (and personal communications). That means some of your important messages to the team could get lost, and you might not always immediately see and read their messages to you.


2. Find an online collaboration tool—and create a workspace there just for your team, and just for this project.

One way to bring your worldwide team a little closer together is to create a special workspace just for them—where everyone on the platform is part of the team (and nobody else is invited), and every communication is about the team’s current project.

You can set up an in-house Wiki, use some of the great project management apps like Jira or Trello, set up a Slack channel, or create a team on Glip (this one’s free, forever).

Tweet This:
“Find an online collaboration tool—and create a workspace there just for your team, and just for this project.”

This will be your team’s exclusive place to collaborate, update each other on progress, brainstorm ideas, communicate throughout the day—and maintain a complete record of all communications related to the project for later reference.

3. Leverage any time overlap you can find.

Let’s say there’s just one hour of the day when both you and your overseas teammates are in the office at the same time. Maybe it’s your morning and the end of the day for your developers in Czech, for example. Lock that time up—on both sides—so your team can communicate in real-time during that hour.

4. Use video whenever you can.

If your product team is spread across several cities or even countries, you can very easily fall into the trap of viewing each other as just a series of names or email addresses—and that never leads to the magic that can come only from the chemistry of real teamwork.

So whenever possible, meet virtually through videoconferences. It’ll help everyone get to know everyone else a little better, share their personalities with the team, and build that chemistry.

You just can’t create a sense of team cohesion over an instant-message platform.

5. Be prepared to work some odd hours (if you’re based in the US).

When you work with teams based in other countries, you need to keep an important logistical detail in mind: Those teams might work in ultra-modern, high-tech buildings with communication lines and Internet connections as fast and reliable as the service you enjoy in your US office. But when these team members go home, in many cases the tech infrastructure in their towns might not be nearly as well-built.

Which means that for you in the United States, it might be much easier to join a call from your home during your evening or early morning than to ask your overseas team to try doing so from their homes.

6. Make each other aware of your cultural quirks.

Funny story. The spouse of one of us here at ProductPlan worked as a product manager for a software startup years ago, and the lead developer on her team was in the US on an H-1B visa from India.

In one of their first conversations together, as the product manager walked the developer through her plans for the product, he continually shook his head. Every time she made a point, it seemed, he was signaling his disagreement. When she finally asked him about it, the developer said, “I’m not disagreeing. In my culture, the head shake is our way of saying ‘Yep, got it.’” (Oh, thought the product manager. Sorry.)

From that point on, the two worked together seamlessly—which, as product manager and developer, meant they debated all the time. But each clearly understood the other.

When you run a team that spans the globe, your team almost certainly consists of t members who have different cultural practices and behaviors—which can show up subtly in how they work together.

So our advice is to create a team culture of openness. Invite team members to ask each other questions if they’re not sure about a message’s tone, for example. Make it fun. This will not only help cut through any cross-cultural confusion but will also help bring your team closer together.

And remember: You want your team to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools.