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Working Through Language, Time, and Cultural Differences

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Working with people in different cities and countries can be challenging as you plan meetings and phone calls across potentially multiple time zones. The greater the physical distance between people, the more likely that a language or cultural difference exists as well. Karen N. Johnson identifies time tools and provides insights into bridging the gaps across time, language, and cultural differences, offering tips from both a coworker's and a manager's perspective.
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As our work lives become more global, learning how to work across multiple time zones becomes a necessity. You might be working on a virtual team with members scattered through multiple countries. Or you might be managing outsourced resources in a different country. Language and cultural differences also are likely when you work with people in different countries. The variations in time, language, and culture can range from minor to more dramatic differences requiring some adjusting for everyone. Following are some tools and tips on working with people around the world.

Working with People in Different Time Zones

Working with multiple time zones is challenging. The greater the time difference, the more complicated it can be to arrange phone calls and meetings. If you’re working with people in different countries, you might need a calling card and/or phone authorization code to place an out-of-country call from your company phone. Your cell phone might not be able to accept or place calls outside your country. But free time tools are available to help to ease such time frustrations.

A good first step is to become aware of the time in the locations with which you’ll be working. Here’s a free tool that can help: Microsoft Time Zone (available from the Microsoft Download Center) can be customized to include up to five locations, and can be configured to sit in your system tray. The tool is easy to use and provides a quick view to the current time in multiple locations. Use Microsoft Time Zone as you schedule meetings or before picking up the phone, so you can be aware of the time in the location you’re calling.

For phone meetings with multiple people in different time zones, plan ahead. Schedule a phone call as you would schedule a meeting, using a calendar tool and booking the time with each person. I suggest identifying the time zones for all attendees as part of the meeting invitation. For example, in either the subject or meeting details, identify the time zones for each person attending the meeting. Consider adding a statement in your meeting invitation, asking people to let you know if you have scheduled the time incorrectly.

Next, you’ll need a tool to help you coordinate the meeting times. The World Clock Meeting Planner (available from Time and Date.com) shows the time in multiple time zones, which is useful when you need to plan meetings. The visual layout of the time based on the location is particularly helpful in choosing a meeting time that works for people in multiple time zones.

For project meetings, it’s important to identify required attendees versus optional attendees. It may be beneficial to contact required resources in advance of the meeting to ensure that they will attend. If those necessary people are not available for the phone meeting, reschedule the meeting, the same way as you would an in-person meeting. Send a reminder email message for phone meetings a couple of hours in advance. If it’s necessary to cancel the meeting, I recommend canceling no later than two hours before the scheduled meeting time. If your meeting time will require people to shift their day significantly, provide as much advance notice as possible.

For phone calls with people who report to me, I schedule meetings more immediately and more frequently. I’ve always believed in providing people with respect for their personal needs mixed with their business obligations. I recommend being considerate of the time of day with regard to lunch breaks, prayer breaks, or commuting times. I’ve asked all resources reporting to me to use Microsoft Outlook (our calendar tool) to record their schedules on their calendar so that I can schedule time with them accordingly. I try to accommodate these needs as much as possible.

For phone meetings, be sure to specify who will be placing the call. This arrangement avoids having both people waiting by the phone, unsure whether they’ll be called or should be calling in. If you’re using a call-in number, include all necessary country codes. If you’re calling a location that you haven’t called before, consider arranging a test phone call-in to verify that you’re authorized to call out of the country.

As either a manager or a coworker, make an occasional arrangement to call people during their prime business hours. Calling people at their convenience may require you to make calls from your home at unusual hours. You may need to arrange in advance to have authority to place an overseas call from home. Making the effort to talk to people at least occasionally at a time more convenient for them shows your interest and sincerity in bridging the time gaps.

Daylight Saving Time adds an extra step in calculating time differences. Not every state in the U.S. or country in the world practices daylight savings. Different countries may recognize daylight savings but may change their clocks on a different weekend. You can look up daylight savings time changes on the Internet and add the information on your own calendar to remain aware of the time. (The time clock web site I referenced earlier includes information on daylight savings.)

Use time differences to your advantage whenever possible. As a manager, consider using overseas resources to complete work and provide a status update that you can view at the start of your business day. This technique can help you to coordinate work between local and remote teams. No matter how great the time gap, I suggest scheduling time on your calendar to keep in touch with people during their prime business hours, so you can talk with people who are at their best during at least some of your calls.

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