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Dr. Erran Carmel, American University – Time Zones and the International Workforce

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Erran Carmel of American University explains the challenges time zones pose to an increasingly international workforce.

Erran Carmel is a professor of information technology at American University in Washington D.C., where his research interests include the globalization of technology work, global software teams, offshoring of IT, and emerging software industries. His work has been widely published and in 2011 he authored, I'm Working While They're Sleeping: Time Zone Separation Challenges and Solutions.

About Dr. Carmel

Dr. Erran Carmel – Time Zones and the International Workforce

The notion of distance is dead. It’s been dead since the 90s. After all, I can easily Skype my friend in London or a business partner in Shanghai. By extension, you may think time zones are dead … that time zone differences don’t matter, right? Through globalization we have created the illusion that time zones have shrunk in importance, just as distance has. It may even seem like time zone differences are a good thing … you know: in Asia, they’re working while in the U.S., we’re sleeping.

For the last decade, I’ve been studying how organizations far apart coordinate across time zones. Millions of global knowledge workers now … do this every day. But it remains a challenge, because working with others requires coordination: meaning extensive communications about what has been done and what still needs to be done on a particular task. Asynchronous interaction like email isn’t sufficient. Studies show that global workers who rely on it as their main means of communication are less successful. In our own research we found that global teams whose work schedules do not overlap are more likely to finish projects quickly, but not as accurately. In other words, there is a tradeoff between speed and accuracy.

The root of the problem is that we human beings still need to coordinate in real time. In fact, research shows that converging on complex tasks requires high interaction between individuals – to generate ideas, to resolve disagreements, to clarify differences. We still need proximity. 

From my field research I have two key observations about global work and time zones. First is what we like to call the dirty little secret of globalization: timeshifting.  Everyone does it. Timeshifting is when one worker adjusts his time to match someone else’s work time. The second observation is that   many global workers practice a new-and-ancient mode of work – what I call – scatter time. They work throughout the day and night, navigating around other life commitments like family and housework.

So, remember I acknowledged that distance is dead? Distance may be dead, but time zones are not. They are still very much an obstacle.

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