The Way We Work

Does your company need to do more in less time? The answer isn’t to work everyone just a little harder. In fact, studies have shown that – as anything but a short-term solution – working overtime is unsustainable and doesn’t even lead to higher productivity.

But there’s a way around this productivity ceiling. In fact, you can structure your team so that accomplishing close to two weeks of work in a mere seven days no longer requires overtime. For many teams, the secret of this hyper-productivity is simple: go global.

The Time Zone Advantage

An internationally distributed team, if designed correctly, has the ability to keep work going over a 24-hour time span. As one team member clocks off, another comes online to take up the mantle. For Yiota Tsakiri, lead product architect at oDesk, this is the working reality of her development team.

From the oDesk office in California, Tsakiri manages a team of six engineers who are located all over the world. She commented, “One of the benefits of this is that we get to work 24/7. There’s always someone online who can take care of things. You can use the whole 24 hours of the day to work.”

Roy Kim, director of services at application development company Rykorp, also uses an internationally distributed development team. With contractors based in the U.S., Russia and China, there is someone working on projects almost every hour of the day.

Kim sees this as a strong advantage. “For the types of projects we work on, which tend to be smaller and have clear and defined road maps in the short term, there is a huge benefit to having distributed teams across different time zones,” he noted. “It allows one team to pick up where another team has left off, which creates a more fluid, continual development cycle.”

Clear Communication = Success

Working with an online team that’s geographically scattered isn’t without its challenges. If not handled correctly, culture and time zone differences can present roadblocks that are serious enough to derail the project.

Tsakiri emphasized the importance of clear communication in ensuring a truly productive team. She holds regular team meetings and also keeps a communication channel open for unscheduled conversations. “I have weekly meetings with everyone,” she said. “We also communicate during the week, even when we don’t have meetings. They will ask me questions via Skype or I’ll send e-mails during the day, and they’ll reply to me during the night.”

She also spells out expectations clearly. “For bigger projects, we use Google Sites where I spec features that are coming up. The developer will read through the feature specs, then come back with questions if he needs to.”

When language barriers are an issue, Kim says he works to minimize any potential confusion by using a different framework. “The self-documenting characters of well-written code can easily be understood by teams regardless of their location…we try to minimize the amount of natural language required and maximize the amount of code language.”

It’s a Team Effort

Building and structuring this type of online team takes planning upfront. All team members must understand their roles and know what’s expected of them. They also have to be committed to working together, rather than in competition. Kim believes that team chemistry is important; “a lot of this relies on the competency of the development teams and their ability to interact with one another,” he said.

He also relies on regular project reviews in order to maintain work quality. “On a daily basis, the U.S. team is responsible for code, reviewing the work of the development teams overseas and then for coordinating with the teams on milestones. The coordination [happens] once every two or three days, unless we’re in crunch time.”

By staying on top of these milestones, Kim is able to quickly discover if there are any misunderstandings regarding the project or if his teams need further clarification on what is needed.

The Sun Never Sets on Work

Tsakiri admitted that it was difficult at first to get used to working across time zones. But now that she’s adjusted? The productivity gain is worth the initial pain. “When I’ve asked my engineers to fix a bug, by the time I come into the office the next morning the bug is fixed and ready for review,” she said.

A case study written by several IBM engineers back up her findings. The study’s authors noted, “The net effect [of using a global team] was that the project plan gave the appearance that the team was working six out of seven days, each of these six days being effectively 16 hours in length, without the exhaustion resulting from having any single individual work 96-hour weeks.”

This type of amazing productivity is no longer the pipe dream of efficiency experts. For internationally distributed teams, it’s just another 24-hour day on the job.

If you’ve worked as part of an international team, what steps did you take to encourage a productive, well-functioning team? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below!

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.