Before I moved to the UK about a year ago, I had established myself as a freelance writer in Australia. I’ve mostly written opinion and analysis for online news as well as the odd feature or personal essay, and the more occasional literary essay. Freelancers like me get paid for their output rather than a regular salary and aren’t allotted office space so they tend to work from home, their favourite café, or a co-working space. I regularly get into workflows that take place on my floor.
Freelancing is very flexible, to the extent that when I moved, all of my connections went with me. Although I write for UK and US publications, most of my work still comes from Australia. I’m established there, most of my contacts are there, I’m best equipped at trying to understand Australia’s political situation, and so on. Professionally, I’m not going backwards in terms of earnings. Personally, I feel like the situation provides a good mix of keeping a foot in the country where most of my friends and family still live while also having the ability to embrace the opportunities of being in a new place – but at my own pace. Moving countries (or even cities) hasn’t meant starting completely from scratch.
In fact, working across time zones has been beneficial. Recently, I was asked at about 7 on a Friday morning (my time) if I could turn an opinion piece around for an Australian newspaper within the next couple of hours. In Australia, which is 9 hours ahead of the UK right now, it was getting dangerously close to the weekend for any productivity to occur. But not for me, I received the assignment right as I was planning my day and could easily slot in the task without any disruptions. At other points, I’ve been able to use my time zone to promise delivery in an American editor’s inbox by the time they get to work the next day. Instead of working late into the night, that gives me a good 5 to 8 hours (depending on where in the US they are) of the next day to work on the piece.
There are downsides too, of course. Working across time zones can be pretty stressful! Often I have to wait a little longer than I’m used to before I get a response to my emails – usually I’m emailing Australians in the middle of their night. And then, usually Australians are trying to get in touch with me while I should be fast asleep. There have been a few times where I’ve been so anxious to hear from people across the other side of the world – about things like whether my pitches are accepted, whether I’ve managed to line up a great source to interview, or whether I have to do revisions for a piece – that it’s been hard to turn off. I’ve found myself waking up at 4 in the morning to refresh my inbox, even though I’d be in no condition to actually act on any correspondence I might get.
Working across time zones has never been easier, but there are professional repercussions – good and bad. I’ve learned the hard way that to make your time zone work for you, you need to be strategic. Here are my top ways of managing my work over multiple time zones.
- Know what time it is in your key time zones. This is obvious, but bears mentioning because it helps keep your expectations in check for when you might hear from others and when is a good time to try to make contact. Also, unless you’re really good at arithmetic and on top of daylight savings arrangements, keeping track of what time it is in different locations can be surprisingly difficult. For my purposes, it’s important for me to know what time it is where I am (obviously), the time on the south-East coast of Australia (Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney), and US Eastern time. I have an applet on my Android phone home screen that gives me these three times instantaneously and makes me feel like a badass international woman for being the kind of person who needs to keep tabs on such things.
- Operate in local time and protect your sleep. Sometimes it can be tempting to stay up a little later or wake up a little earlier in order to synch up with the time zone you’re working with. If you do this occasionally, it’s not a sin. But you absolutely need to set boundaries so that you can function in your new home at sociable hours (what’s the point of being abroad if you’re asleep during the day and can’t hang out with anybody?) and get adequate rest. If people try to get in contact with you overnight, turn your phone off when you head to bed, or at least switch it to silent. Don’t keep your phone next to your bed either, make it so that it’s hard to roll over and check it. At particularly worrying times, I find that some relaxation activity before bed also makes a difference to my ability to sleep peacefully through the night without giving half a thought to the work stuff that’s gradually bloating my inbox.
- Turn off notifications. When you can reasonably expect to get non-urgent work communications at all kinds of random hours, sometimes it’s just better to live in a bit of ignorance. If you’re having drinks with friends, getting a notification for some work thing is distracting and a bit of a downer. You should only check your email in intervals that are comfortable for you, otherwise you run the risk of having to intricately flag and tag or even respond to messages at a designated fun time.
- Learn others’ routines. Some people get to their emails first thing in the morning, others get to it later. Some people check their email all the day long, others only once or twice. If you pay attention to the times when you tend to get emails from specific people, you can use that information to optimise your productivity at points where you’re relying on them to get back to you. Don’t be the person hitting the ‘refresh’ email on your inbox every few seconds especially if it auto-refreshes anyway and especially if the person you’re waiting to hear from won’t reply for another few hours. Instead, you can use the time to work on something else.
- Arrange phone or Skype sessions with reference both to your and their time. Don’t tell someone in a different time zone than you, ‘I’ll call you at 3’ – it’s ambiguous and confusing. Say, I’ll give you a call at 9pm your time (noon my time). The bonus of quoting both times is that they’ll realise what kind of state you’re in. I once scheduled an interview with someone from Brisbane very early on a Friday morning for me, and well into Friday drinks time for them. We forgave each other for our respective incoherence. Oh, and P.S. if you want to reduce scheduling mistakes, check out Every Time Zone.
- Sell your ability to get work done overnight. Think about it, if you’re just leaving work and someone has told you, ‘I’ll have this important project on your desk by the morning’, you would probably fall in love with them. When you work over multiple time zones, it is that easy to make people fall in love with you.
- If you’re working with a group, use apps that support time diversity. At Expat Coffee Club, we’ve been using Slack, which means that the whole group can see what each other are doing and thinking, but on their own schedule. The app keeps track of what you’ve read, so even if the conversation has gone on for ages without you, it’s not too tricky to get up to speed. It also has good instant messaging function if two or more of you happen to be awake and available at the same time.
- Use email scheduling services. Everyone I regularly work with in Australia or the US knows that I’m overseas, hence the strange times I get in touch with them. Sometimes, however, I find it useful to at least pretend to be on their wavelength so that my email isn’t among the myriads of others they may receive overnight or over the weekend and want to quickly delete, or so they aren’t reading it just as their lunchtime sugar rush is dropping away. I use Boomerang for Outlook for this purpose, but there are plenty of other free scheduling options.