Checking time zone privilege in remote teams and global orgs

One of my favorite things in life is when I realize how stupid I’ve become by getting smarter. Said differently, it’s the moment you realize that your personal inference engine is filled with a bunch of assumptions. And although those assumptions can let you feel smart in front of others who are confronted with exactly similar conditions for the first time, they’re kind of useless when you’re put into different situations. It’s SO easy to forget.

Me and my mom driving around town in Seattle area — my birthplace.

For example, I was in Seattle visiting my 83-year old mother. We went to a post office to drop off something she wanted to mail to her younger sister. Because I don’t own a car in Seattle, I borrowed my younger brother’s questionably low-riding car with darkly tinted windows and is all black.

We parked in the handicap spot but she didn’t want to go in — it’s not so easy to get around walking when you’re that age and have diabetes. So my mom told me to go ahead, and she would wait in the car because she was tired. I proceeded into the post office, and popped out a few minutes later and got into my brother’s car and turned on the ignition. I edged back slowly.

Then, I heard a, “CRUNCH!” I thought “uh oh ….” I got out and there was another car backing up at the same time that I didn’t see or expect to come from anywhere. The other car parked, and an older women came out who looked very afraid. I thought she might be afraid because my younger brother’s car looks a little scary.

I made her feel at ease and expressed my regret that we’d collided — and looking at the damage, it wasn’t really bad at all. Just scratches. I told her I was visiting my 83-year old mother and she’s totally fine in the car.

To which the woman responded, “Oh — she’s one year older than me so I’m glad she’s okay. I’m so embarrassed. My car is so old that I don’t care about any scratches at all. What about your car?”

I looked at the car and the white scuff from her white car on black paint wasn’t a big deal; I figured it could easily be removed with WD-40. I told her to not worry and there wasn’t a need to call the insurance companies. She looked incredibly relieved, and asked me multiple times if it was okay.

Looking extremely relieved, the woman in the white car drove off, and I sat back in the car with my mother. She asked what happened because she couldn’t see my conversation transpire. I told her that the other woman was one year younger than her, and that she seemed so relieved that we weren’t calling the insurance companies.

My mother said, “Well of course she must have felt so relieved. Because then she didn’t have to tell her children that she got in an accident.”

I asked my mom what she meant by that. She went on and said, “When you’re my age, your children are always trying to control you. You’re always so worried about us — that’s why I stopped driving. She probably wants to keep driving and be in control of her own life. So the last thing she wants to tell her kids is she got in an accident — because they’ll take the car away from her.”

The moment gave me serious pause — as I had completely misread the other woman’s reaction. I thought she was happy that her insurance premium didn’t have to go up. Or that I wasn’t a dangerous person coming out of a decidedly sketchy black car.

I could only understand that moment through my mother, who by being a similar age and situation, could have true empathy.

This is a long-winded story to prelude the general point of this post — which is the importance of timezone inclusivity in a remote team. In my first few months at Automattic I didn’t think twice about scheduling large meetings until my European colleague, Paolo Belcastro, gave an internal talk about the importance of timezone inclusivity.

Automattic covers a lot of territory due to its uniquely fully-distributed nature.

Through hearing Paolo’s concerns of a US/Canada-centric culture becoming dominant in our company, and what that meant to all others who didn’t fall within that timezone — I immediately felt that I needed to think differently about my scheduling habits. Paolo made me realize I had “timezone privilege” as an American in a global company that was predominantly N Americans as a majority.

So after that moment, I began to schedule any major meeting I might call to happen in three time zones. It was a bit awkward at first, and it was an idea I took from a few of my professional colleagues working in much larger companies — and I could see the benefit immediately.

Today I schedule each monthly all-design meeting in two timezones: 1/ 10AM NY to hit E Coast US/Canada and EMEA, and 2/ 8PM NY to hit late W Coast US/Canada and APAC. As for attendance, for all those who report to me within design I make it mandatory — which can be a little unpopular in a distributed organization, but I believe that a minimal amount of co-presence is a good thing.

If we can’t collocate in space to show shared commitment, we can at least collocate in time to do so. By doing so, we are implicitly teaming.

From “Why videoconferencing is useful in an all-distributed team”

As for my other smaller meetings during the month, I haven’t found the right way to do this yet — but I intend to figure this out. If you have your own tips for timezone inclusivity or stories about discovering its importance, please feel free to share them below. Thanks! —JM