How Teams Can Be Productive When Everyone’s On Different Schedules

How do you get the most out of teams working in different time zones and make sure everyone reaches their potential, no matter what time they work best?


Timing has a profound impact on our performance, but what happens when team members are on different schedules?

Productivity does not remain consistent throughout the day. In fact, studies have found that time of day is responsible for a 20% variance in performance on cognitive tasks, and can be highly specific to the individual’s natural rest and productivity cycles, or chronotype.

Though a majority experiences an early-morning peak in performance, a midday trough, and an afternoon recovery, about 15% of the population’s chronotype performs best a few hours earlier, while 20% perform their best later in the day.

But what happens when teams need to be firing on all cylinders while some members are deep in the trough? How do you get the most out of teams working in different time zones? And how do you facilitate a working environment that allows everyone to reach their potential, no matter their chronotype?

“There’s no way to make everyone happy all the time, but it’s absurd to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because you can make it so so so much better,” Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, tells Fast Company before delivering a keynote presentation at LimeAde Engage in Savannah, Georgia. “If you understand the rules of synchronization, and the rules of how groups synchronize, you can create the architecture for groups to have a much better chance at synchronizing effectively.”

The way in which most organizations schedule meetings and group projects fails to consider the significant impact of timing on performance and synchronicity, explains Pink. Instead, many only take the availability of members and meeting rooms into consideration, but Pink believes “the best time of day to do something depends on the nature of the task.”

He explains that for most people, tasks that require peak performance are best completed in the morning, administrative and less demanding tasks are best left for the midday slump, and insightful tasks like brainstorming should be left for the afternoon.

While this pattern is consistent for about two-thirds of the population, the remainder experience different patterns, which poses a problem for leaders trying to get the most out of their team members. Time zones add another layer of complexity to those trying to optimize team performance, as teams on different sides of the world, or the country, experience these fluctuations hours apart.

While Pink says there is no perfect solution, he recommends starting by questioning the premise of the meeting, and determining if any of it can be done asynchronously.

“Maybe they can generate the ideas in their own time, when its best for them to do that kind of work, and share them in advance so you can talk about them in real time,” he suggests. “You want to have a decent amount of autonomy in the system so that people are able to work the time that’s best for them.”

When it comes to working across time zones or chronotypes, Pink says organizations often unintentionally cater to one group’s peak performance hours over another.

“I think a lot of times we force the individual to adapt to the workplace, but what we should do is the reverse, the environment should adapt to the individual,” he says.

Daily early morning meetings, for example, can put night owls at a disadvantage, while late afternoon meetings can be difficult for early birds. Striking a better balance can help more team members reach their full potential more often, rather than giving one group a significant advantage.

Whether within a work group, a rowing team, or a choir, Pink’s research finds that synchronization works best when there is a clear leader at the helm.

“You can have autonomy within the system, but you need to have a boss, and the boss is not always a person,” he said, explaining that in some situations the boss takes the form of a deadline, a client, or a major benchmark.

“In a choir, the choirmaster is literally facing a different direction, the coxswain faces a different direction than the rowers, and in those two cases they’re not doing the work, but that person is clearly the boss,” he said. “It’s not a hierarchy; it’s one boss with some autonomy within the system itself.”

Synchronicity, according to Pink, is an innate human need, and appealing to that subconscious need can improve team cohesion in an exponential way.

“There’s something fundamentally human about synchronizing in time with other people, something in the human condition that makes it valuable to us,” he said. “When we synchronize with other people we feel better, and that makes us better synchronizers, and that makes us more likely to perform [better], which makes us feel better, which makes us better synchronizers.”

Feeling like an important member of a group can be a strong motivator, explains Pink, but it’s up to leaders to foster that sense of belonging in the workplace.

“I think people want to know, when they go into any enterprise, am I making a contribution and am I making a difference?” he says. “The boss or the leader has to be able to help people answer that question in the affirmative. They need to create the circumstances, so that the answer to that question is ‘yes.’”

While he admits that timing shouldn’t dictate every leadership decision, Pink believes it has persisted as an afterthought, or less, for far too long. He suggests being more conscious of the importance of timing, letting people choose their own schedule whenever possible, spreading the burdens of unavoidable timing conflicts evenly, and synchronizing around a leader and a cause can have significant impacts on improving group performance.

“What we need are organizations that take the ‘when’ as seriously as they take the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and the ‘who,’ and no organization does that,” he says. “We continue to sit these ‘when’ questions at the kids’ table, and they really belong at the grownup table.”

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