About Time: How Time Differences Impact Global Teams

About Time: How Time Differences Impact Global Teams

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

Thanks to COVID-19, more of us are working home than ever before. This has its perks, like two-second commutes and athleisure as workwear, and its challenges, like wobbly Wi-Fi connections and staying connected with colleagues. Remote work also means that many of us are now working in different cities than our colleagues, sometimes in different time zones. Organizations are increasingly turning to global teams whose members are both spatially and temporally dispersed, located in different areas and time zones. The rise of global teams means it is critical to understand the dynamics of remote teamwork and how we can work well with our colleagues when they are scattered across the globe. To that end, Sen Chai, Julija Mell (Rotterdam School of Management) and Sujin Jang (INSEAD) explored the role of temporal brokers in global teams and how being a temporal broker impacts team coordination and individual performance. 

Just what is a temporal broker? Consider the following situation: you are currently working from Paris with two members of your team in Singapore, managing a seven-hour time difference. You also have three colleagues based in Montreal - a six-hour time difference with you and a thirteen-hour one with the Singaporean colleagues. While you interact in real time with both the Montreal and Singapore contingents, they rarely interact with each other “live”. As a result, you fall into the role of temporal broker: the person that bridges the subgroups that have little to no temporal overlap with each other. While it’s not a formal role, the person in that position tends to do more coordination work than their team members, incurring a heavier workload. Despite this, being a temporal broker can be beneficial: the researchers found that temporal brokers tend to produce higher-quality work. How exactly does this play out? 

Temporal distance, i.e. time differences, mean that team members are less likely to engage in synchronous communication, because their workdays are less likely to overlap. While we have a plethora of communication tools at our fingertips, a lack of synchronous communication, such as video conferencing or instant messaging, poses a challenge to building the shared mental models that are essential for collaboration. This means that virtual, temporally-dispersed teams can experience coordination issues. It also means that members will experience the team differently, based on where they’re located compared to the others: in other words, the temporal broker will emerge. Dr. Chai and colleagues say, “We find that they tend to engage in conduit brokering: coordinating sharing information and knowledge within the team.” For example, our Paris-based employee has a morning meeting with Sam in Singapore and later debriefs Marie in Montreal about the meeting in the afternoon, once Marie has started her workday, by which point Sam has logged off. To prevent miscommunications and share information more quickly, Pierre in Paris increasingly takes on this kind of task to make sure the team runs smoothly and everyone is on the same page. Pierre is now a temporal broker.

There are a few characteristics defining a temporal broker. The first is that they are in a team with shared goals and knowledge of one another (so even if Marie and Sam have never met, they know the other exists and communicate independently of Pierre) and the second is that while the temporal broker can’t change the temporal overlap, they can act as a go-between who passes along information. Even though the others can communicate asynchronously, the ability of the temporal broker to communicate in real time with the others can boost the alignment of the team’s mental models. These shared mental models are critical in developing strategies for achieving the team’s goals, so dispersed teams may struggle to agree on a strategy in their absence. The temporal broker, exposed to the ideas and opinions of different subgroups, is in a position to be able to integrate their perspectives and clarify misunderstandings. The temporal broker, exposed to the ideas and opinions of different subgroups, is able to integrate their perspectives and clarify misunderstandings. 

Much of the existing research on global teams has focused on cross-cultural differences or working virtually, with less attention paid to how time differences impact teams. Dr. Chai and her colleagues focused on the structure of the team, specifically on their temporal dispersion. They looked at thousands of people participating in global student project teams and global academic research teams, examining the emergence of temporal brokers and uncovering both positive and negative outcomes of being a temporal broker. They found that people in temporal broker positions did indeed take on more coordination work than their teammates, and that this increased coordination effort led to an increased workload. Since temporal brokerage isn’t an official role - indeed, people may not even consciously be doing it - temporal brokers aren’t excused from other projects or given accommodations, so they might spread themselves thin as a result. On the bright side, the researchers also found that temporal brokers demonstrate more integrative complexity, meaning that they are able to recognize and integrate different outlooks on an issue, thanks to their exposure to their teammates’ varying perspectives and the necessity of integrating them to build the shared mental models. 

Delving deeper, the researchers looked at participants’ output as a whole, finding that these outcomes impact more than just their work in the team. While temporal brokers tended to complete fewer projects due to the increased workload and strain on their resources, the projects they did complete were of higher quality. This demonstrates that while being a temporal broker takes time and effort, the exposure to others’ viewpoints and flexibility boost one’s own performance. 

Virtual work and dispersed teams have exploded over the past year thanks to COVID-19, and global teams are unlikely to go away any time soon as organizations seek to cut labor costs, boost flexibility, and hire specialized skill sets. This means we need to understand how being in a different place than your colleagues impacts both the team as a whole and team members individually. With their research, Dr. Chai and her colleagues demonstrated that global teams tend to feature a temporal broker who connects dispersed teammates, and that temporal brokerage impacts both the team’s coordination and the individual’s productivity and performance. By understanding how global teams operate, we can better function in them and make the most of virtual work, for ourselves and for our teams. 

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