BBC Capital

The secret to time shifting when your work is global

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

It’s the middle of the night but you’ve got to take this call. It’s not an emergency, it’s just one of your key clients and it’s morning at his office halfway across the globe. Still, you’ve got to pick up.  Sounds extreme, perhaps, but it’s a fact of life for many in today's globalised work force.

What do you do when your clients and colleagues are spread across different time zones? For some time-zone-trotting professionals, the answer is something akin to a personal time warp.

Fredrich Kahrl faced this dilemma after moving to Berlin from San Francisco. Kahrl's wife had accepted a one-year fellowship and the couple were keen to spend the time in Germany together with their toddler. However, Kahrl — a consultant at Energy + Environmental Economics, an energy consulting firm — wanted to continue working for his US-based employer.

Kahrl's boss allowed him to stay on as long as he kept in touch through weekly meetings and didn’t drop the ball with his mostly American and Canadian clients. What this meant, though, was working non-traditional hours. When Berlin was preparing to go to bed, Kahrl was preparing for meetings and taking calls at odd hours, including once in the middle of the night in the bathroom, so as not to disturb the family, all asleep in their small apartment.

“Distance is dead, but time zones aren’t,” said Erran Carmel, dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington DC and co-author of I'm Working While They're Sleeping: Time Zone Separation Challenges and Solutions. And, he said, the time zone dilemma is one that technology can’t solve. People still need to sleep, spend time with their family and “construct a rhythm of their day,” he said.

Enter time-shifting. These days, more people are working outside the regular daytime work day, integrating calls and emails from far flung colleagues and clients throughout the evening and early morning hours. The decidedly low-tech strategy is one principal way to manage working across time zones, said Carmel.

While the number of workers dependent on time zones is unknown, Microsoft has estimated that there are more than 500 million knowledge workers worldwide. Carmel estimates that more 10 million of them must coordinate with others regularly across time zones. With team members spread across continents, even simple tasks like scheduling a meeting mean at least one person adjusts his or her schedule, waking a few hours earlier or staying up later to coordinate with everyone else, Carmel said.

And they do so with little corporate guidance. While there has been plenty of emphasis by companies on tackling culture or language barriers amongst a global workforce and clientele, workers scattered across the globe are typically on their own when it comes to trying to balance their personal and professional lives.

Working round-the-clock

Manu Gopinath, Global Head of Human Resources at California-based UST Global, starts his work day at 7:00. The global information technology services provider has about 15,000 employees in 20 countries and Gopinath has to coordinate with people in seven different time zones on a daily basis.

The company holds most of its global calls from 7:00 to 11:00 Pacific Time, which is eight hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. But it’s a window that works best for most time zones, Gopinath said. It’s the busiest part of Gopinath’s work day; he has to juggle multiple calls, emails and deal with time-critical issues. After that he takes a break before getting back to work. Gopinath is home early in the evening to spend time with his wife and young children and then logs back on for an hour or two at the start of the business day in Europe and Asia before heading to bed.

“It’s more about work-life integration than work-life balance,” said Gopinath, who has worked at UST Global since its launch 15 years ago. Given the global nature of his job, Gopinath, 40, said he would rather answer texts and take quick calls while spending time with his kids than make a choice between work and his personal life.

“In many cases I get calls or texts or WhatsApp messages during the evening,” he said. “If I am watching TV I can just quickly respond and keep the work moving.”

Becoming a night owl

Miranda Ash lives in London and works with many American clients and colleagues, so she shifts her day in the other direction. Ash, a self-described night owl, often starts her work day in the afternoon — morning in the US — and works until about 22:00 or 23:00, taking a break to have dinner with husband.

“I think it works well for him because he gets to watch football (soccer) at night,” she said.

Ash had worked typical daytime hours before becoming global director for membership and awards at WorldBlu, a workplace consulting firm, about five years ago. The company’s eight employees are spread across five times zones with clients all over the globe.

The new schedule was an adjustment, she said.

“Everyone presumed that I was in the US and I would get calls at one or two in the morning” she said. Ash quickly learned to how to be flexible, while still keeping a manageable schedule.

She turns off her phone when she’s done for the night and makes it clear to clients and colleagues that she is based in the UK. She stacks her early morning and late night calls on just one or two days a week, so she can avoid working around the clock every day.

Kahrl also eventually settled into a routine in Berlin, using the quiet time in the morning to spend time with his daughter and later focus on tough tasks that required uninterrupted time. The pace of calls and emails pick up in the afternoon and he responded, but Kahrl said he became more disciplined about turning down middle of the night calls by making his availability clear to colleagues and clients.

It didn’t always work. “In Germany it always invariably happened that when I was sitting in a beer garden after three beers, I would get a colleague who calls and asks for help,” Kahrl said.

Do you time-shift in your work? How have you handled working across time zones? Share your insights or comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, at our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Distance is dead, but time zones aren’t. — Erran Carmel