Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 11, 2021 · 12 min read

Dealing With “Remote Sprawl”: How to Manage Teams, People, and Projects Across Time Zones

Remote Sprawl

It’s quickly becoming the ‘new normal’ for companies and teams to be split across cities, countries, and even time zones. And while there’s no denying the many benefits of working remotely, mismatched schedules, repetitive communication, and out-of-sync teams don’t make the list.

We like to call these issues remote sprawl.

Just like urban sprawl–the poorly planned expansion of cities–creates congestion, places unrealistic demands on infrastructure, and causes environmental damage, many remote companies grow and grow without understanding the dangers of not having a clear plan for working together.

Remote sprawl creates confusion instead of collaboration. And while tools like Planio do a good job of helping you stay connected, successfully managing teams across countries and timezones takes a completely new set of skills.

This is true whether you’re a startup PM learning to manage the remote devs on your team, or an industry veteran trying to wrangle dependencies, task prioritization, and timelines among multiple teams on opposite sides of the world.

So what does it take to combat remote sprawl and keep teams on track from across the globe? In this guide, we’re going to cover the tools, processes, and cultural shifts you need to make to successfully collaborate from wherever you are,

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Note: This post is a companion to our extensive guides on how to manage, hire for, and work on remote teams. If you’re managing a large, spread-out team (or group of teams), this was written just for you.

How to reverse Remote Sprawl: 10 reasons teams spread across time zones fall apart (and how to avoid them)

When you don’t plan properly for the realities of working across time zones, teams get out of sync, projects fall behind, and no one knows who to blame.

However, the issue isn’t in the act of working remotely, but in going into it without being fully prepared for just how different remote companies are. Remote sprawl comes from a lack of purposefulness and concentrated effort to describe not just what product you’re building, but how the people building it will work together, ship it, and maintain it in the long-run.

While remote sprawl is a dangerous issue for every team, luckily there are numerous red flags to watch out for.

More specifically, remote sprawl kills companies when you fail to address, plan for, and fix 10 key issues. Let’s dig more in-depth into each of these with some best practices on how to solve them and bring your globe-trotting team together.

1. Poor people management: Embrace your team’s nuances

Project management is about people as much as it is about tasks, timeframes, and features. When your company is spread across time zones, it becomes even more important to embrace the personal aspect of building products.

As NerdWallet’s VP of Content Maggie Leung explains:

“It's becoming all the more clear that remote skills will be table stakes for managers who want to win and retain top talent.”

The personal aspect of remote skills is what often gets looked over by managers struggling to adjust to simply not being in the same room or building as their team. So Leung suggests a few options:

  1. Create space for conversations. Working across timezones makes it even easier to overlook less-visible teammates. When remote employees don’t feel seen, they’re more likely to feel left out and ganged up on. In turn, this harms productivity, morale, and more. Look beyond 1-on-1s and think of other spaces (like Zoom happy hours) and places (like team Wikis or chat) where conversations can happen.
  2. Invest in relationships. Equally as important as communicating more with your team is to understand and respect your team’s working style. If you don’t know what’s best, ask them. We all have our preferences, different ways of working that play to our strengths. While it might be hard to cater to everyone’s unique preferences in a traditional office, that doesn’t have to be the case with remote work.
  3. Shine a spotlight on what ‘good’ looks like. Context is one of the first things to go when teams are spread apart. So rather than just show what worked, highlight and explain why it did (or didn’t). This can be done informally during meetings or more systematically in lessons learned or during sprint retrospectives.

Above all else, working across time zones gives you the opportunity to understand how the individuals on your team want to work. Don’t just pick one approach, but be mindful of their preferences.

As Maneesh Sharma, GM for GitHub India suggests:

“It’s important that I respect each person’s or team’s preference when it comes to the format and time of communication. I usually check in with colleagues about connecting synchronously (like video conferencing) before sending a calendar invite and I don’t assume someone is free just by looking at their calendar.”

2. Inflexibility and artificial restraints: Create new, remote-first policies

A major part of project management is adding restraints and order to the chaos of building software. But the ways you organize an in-person (or in-time-zone) team don’t translate when you’re working across the world.

Instead, every policy needs a remote-first purpose. Rather than just adding artificial restraints (like timelines or sprint cycles), you should know why that policy is good for the entire company.

At large companies, this problem is compounded. Middle managers can feel lost in remote settings and resort to focusing on visibility as the core metric whether their teams are doing well or not. But as entrepreneur Neil Patel explains:

"A remote work environment should encourage performance, not presence."

When you find yourself butting up against a process that isn’t working, ask what it was meant to do in the first place.

Sticking with a less-than-optimal process just because that’s how it’s been done is about as anti–Agile as you can get!

3. Timing and team cadence: Decouple team cadences whenever possible

Agile teams rely on a clear sprint cadence to keep projects moving, remove bottlenecks, and ship great software. But when you have multiple teams working across time zones rigid adherence to a sprint schedule can actually backfire.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about.

Let’s say you’ve got teams in San Francisco (PST) and Bangalore (IST) who are both running on the same two-week sprint cycle to match deployment schedules.

This wouldn’t be a problem with teams in the same time zone (or even country), but because your teams have sprawled, the IST team is essentially attending a planning and kickoff meeting for the next sprint the day before they’ve even finished their current one. While the PST team is making plans based on a sprint that hasn’t even been finished.

For teams with this level of sprawl, it’s important to re-evaluate how important it is to synchronize those cadences or if there’s a better option.

As Todd A. Jacobs, author of Scrum First Aid, explains, you can think of your multiple teams as either:

  1. One logical team
  2. Two independent teams
  3. Multiple interdependent teams

At this point, you have tons of different options for decoupling cadences while keeping your company on track.

You could still have all teams work from a singular backlog and match sprint cycles, but only synchronize during the core hours they both share.

Or, you could decouple delivery from deployment, which would allow each team to work with a cadence that makes sense for them.

Finally, you could avoid company-wide cadence entirely like the team at Gumroad. At Gumroad, each individual is responsible for a single project and works to unblock everyone else.

While this might not work at a larger company with multiple interdependent teams, if you’re essentially one team working across time zones, it can be a huge benefit to give your team members more autonomy.

4. Dependencies across teams: Schedule an ‘integration’ sprint

Whether you keep your teams synchronized or decoupled, you still need to integrate work at the end of a sprint or when you hit a milestone. But this is where things get messy.

One way to reduce that mess is to, ironically, reduce efficiency.

Rather than jumping straight from sprint to sprint, apply the brakes and take the necessary time to ensure integration goes smoothly. Even with the best teams, integrating the work of multiple remote teams is rarely as simple as dropping in the different pieces and hoping it’ll all work out.

As Ashok Ramachandran Technical Project Manager at National Geographic, writes:

“You can manage dependencies and hand-offs across project teams, but it is not practical to do it more granular than, say, a week. If Team-1 promises something this week, Team-2 can plan to use it from next week. Even this has to be followed-up very closely by you.”

The more dependencies you juggle, however, the more risk you take on as a project manager.

That’s why it makes sense to set aside a dedicated integration cycle to keep things in check. While it might seem inefficient to have a whole sprint just to make sure the different parts play nicely together, it’s far more costly to push ahead before you’ve been able to resolve any integration issues.

Even with the best teams, integrating the work of multiple remote teams is rarely as simple as dropping in the different pieces and hoping it’ll all work out.

5. Miscommunication: Embrace a culture of asynchronous communication

One of the huge benefits for remote teams–especially technical ones–is not being stuck in the expectation of always being available.

Embrace Asynchronous Communication

When you’re working across time zones, there will always be times where your team’s workdays don’t line up. Maybe you’re in Seattle and just getting started for the day, while your coworkers in Berlin are about to log off. If you’re expecting an immediate response, you’re going to be disappointed.

However, instead of seeing this as an obstacle, the best remote teams use the move to fully asynchronous communication as an opportunity. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. You’re more thoughtful. Comments are made (hopefully) after some thought, not in the spur of the moment.
  2. It forces you to plan ahead (or look for your own solutions) because you can’t rely on people always being available.
  3. Asynchronous promotes documenting decisions (which is good for everyone!)
  4. It lowers the stress of feeling like you always need to be available.

However, where most teams spread across time zones go wrong is in thinking that asynchronous communication = email only.

Email loses context, is rarely clear and concise, and can add more confusion than it takes away.

Instead, keeping as much communication within a project management tool like Planio means that decisions and context are always accessible to everyone.

You could create an internal wiki for documenting lessons learned or managing your team’s knowledge and workflows. Or, communicate updates and questions within project issues.

Asking a question in a ticket

This way, you can set a status, assign the specific teammates who need to see this information as well as link out to relevant files, documents, and even code repos.

Setting different attributes in a ticket

As an added tip, try to set an ‘official’ time zone that’s used for meeting schedules. This way you won’t show up three hours early for a meeting (or end up scrambling to join one you thought started later on). A project management tool that supports time zones is particularly useful here. Planio displays all times correctly if you set up your time zone.

6. Personal issues: Be proactive about work-life balance

As a leader, it’s not enough anymore to only focus on what your team does at work.

No matter how well your team works together, there will always be factors outside your control that threaten their morale, productivity, and peace of mind.

Especially when you work across time zones, there are more opportunities for the lines between work and life to get blurred. In fact, according to Monster, 69% of workers are experiencing burnout symptoms, a number that has been increasing as the pandemic has gone on.

Rather than leave your team to struggle on their own, be proactive about mental health and work-life balance.

This starts with setting clear boundaries (for you and your team) and sticking to them. It’s no good paying lip service to switching off after work then emailing your team in the evenings and weekends. Even if you say you don’t expect a response, showing that you’re working in those hours can create an unspoken pressure for them to do the same.

Next, encourage them to stay connected with their community. Isolation is a serious issue for far-flung remote teams. Asking people about their family or the people they’re close to can help show them it’s OK to disconnect from work and reconnect with their community.

Finally, give your team avenues to bring up personal issues. While it’s easy in an office to have an informal chat and resolve minor problems, it’s harder when you’re never in the same room. Leave blocks of time open in your schedule for personal chats or ask people for candid feedback during one-on-ones.

7. Unclear expectations: Keep teams localized as much as possible

Expectations–both spoken and unspoken–are what keep your project and teamwork on track. However, when you’re across time zones, expectations can become muddied and people can become resentful.

Keep Teams Localized

In this case, it’s important to keep your teams as ‘localized’ as possible. As technical project manager Ashok Ramachandran writes:

“If you have multiple teams in multiple time zones, try to keep whole projects at each location with fully self-contained teams. This is important because teams should understand the business goals in the project charter and be able to make the adjustments and trade-offs necessary to accomplish the business goals.”

Localization doesn’t mean that your team needs to all be in the same location (or time zone). However, at a minimum, they should have at least a few shared core work hours each day to actively collaborate.

What’s more important, is that each team has a shared set of values and a deeper context of the market and project goals.

As we wrote in our Guide to Writing a Lean Product Requirements Document (PRD), you should be able to ask any teammate the overall purpose, release criteria, and timeline for the product and get roughly the same answer.

8. Information silos: Leverage your knowledge management tools and processes

When teams aren’t localized, however, you still need to be able to share information, knowledge, and broader context.

Knowing what to share is rarely the problem. Even the most disorganized remote teams have some process in place for managing tasks and planning sprints. However, it’s the finer details and strategic thinking that often get missed.

Yet these details are exactly what empowers teams across time zones to be more autonomous and confidently make decisions even when you’re not around.

Again, this comes down to creating a formal system for writing and sharing information.

Startup CTO and developer Snir David describes written communication as a “remote work superpower” as it allows information to spread rather than be hidden away. However, to make writing and information sharing work, you need to support it in a number of ways:

A knowledge management workflow and tool (like Planio!) is one of the easiest ways to bring your team together across time zones. You can create an organized wiki that houses team knowledge, freeing up everyone to do their best work.

When your company is spread across time zones, it becomes even more important to embrace the personal aspect of building products.

9. Cultural breakdowns: Find your North Star and work towards it

When people talk about a company’s North Star, they’re often thinking about the purpose that drives them. But, especially for remote teams across time zones, it also has to encompass the culture behind that purpose.

For some companies, ‘culture’ just means that they have a ping pong table and bean bags, or it’s a collection of buzzwords on their About page. However, for remote teams that may never meet each other face to face, a genuine culture is the glue that holds the team together, preventing arguments and promoting co-operation.

As NerdWallet’s Maggie Leung writes:

“Without a cultural North Star, everyone on your team ends up setting a variety of expectations on their own. Not only will some of those conflict with each other, it’s unlikely you’ll end up with the culture you want as a leader.”

So what is your cultural North Star?

It’s more than just a few phrases or verbs. Your North Start is a combination of your processes, beliefs, and actions.

At NerdWallet, their content team explains their cultural North Star by explaining how you “know people have your back”.

You know people have your back when:

A document like this explains actions. It shows how you should be acting if you’re living your North Star beliefs. It also helps teammates, no matter where they are, act in a way that’s expected and appreciated.

10. Teams (or teammates) who don’t know how to work remotely

Finally, working across time zones requires a team that’s able to efficiently work remotely—usually, from their homes. However, someone who thrives in a structured office environment can easily struggle with the distractions of working at home. This is especially the case for teams forced to rapidly adopt remote work (say, due to a global pandemic).

In a situation like this, an effective remote work strategy needs to be more than just handing out laptops and hoping for the best.

Instead, you need to ensure your team has everything they need to successfully work from home. Rather than leaving it to chance, find out how they intend to work, and provide guidance where needed.

As mentioned previously, there should be open communication channels between you and your team. But that doesn’t mean you should wait for them to raise relevant issues. Set aside time to catch up with your team members and see how they’re coping and if there is any way you can help them thrive in a remote environment.

Remote work doesn’t have to be a headache

When you’re dealing with teams spread across the globe, it can seem impossible to achieve the same levels of collaboration you’d have in a traditional office. However, by understanding the specific obstacles faced by remote teams and planning ahead, you can prevent remote sprawl.
Change your expectations, focus on the people you work with, promote asynchronous communication, and use the right tools and processes and you’ll be well on your way to building an international team that feels like they’re working in the same room.