Time Zones & Different Working Weeks

THE 24/7 EXPORTER

Well it could happen! A number of years ago I was working simultaneously on client projects in North America, Hong Kong, and Australia. Potentially my working day could have stretched to as many as 17 hours, with my farthest West customer being in Vancouver and my farthest East being in Sydney. As I write this now just short of 4pm UK time, the guys in Vancouver will be getting ready for their 8am journey to work and the boys in Sydney may well be in the land of Nod!

As an export professional, it is fairly easy to manage the time differences if you accept that you may need to work some late nights and early mornings. However it is much harder to instil the same flexibility into a company. Employee contracts will normally require the working day to be from 8:30am to 5:30pm with a statutory hour for lunch, so colleagues may not be available at the time you need them most. And most business premises are likely to be securely locked between the hours of 7am and 7pm.

I remember a few years back in the 1990’s when I had a fax machine located in the bedroom. That was where the upstairs phone line came into the house at the time. More often than I care to remember, I was woken up by the beeping and whirring of a transmission from one of our US distributors. The ‘bedroom fax’ only lasted for about two years before my teenage son began to grow exponentially out of the box room. That became my new office after an attic room was installed where the phone and fax could beep and whirr without disturbing my beauty sleep.

Wireless technology now means I can communicate with overseas clients from my garden, in my car, on top of a hill or walking on a beach. It has freed us all from the physical shackles of wires into wall sockets, and enabled much more flexible working practises. For example while I was on business in Toronto a client was simultaneously in Sydney. He had more technical knowledge and I had better commercial experience, and we are able to support each other over a 15 hour time zone gap by using a mix of email and Whatsapp during that time.

Although we now have the technology to override some of the traditional time hurdles of exporting, there are still a number of barriers to be managed or overcome. Our weekend in the UK does not coincide with the weekend in Middle Eastern countries where most people are back at work on a Saturday morning after Friday prayers, and with many taking their weekend break from Thursday lunchtime.  That is our 9am! So if we request a decision from our Middle Eastern customers on a Wednesday evening in order to process export documents, we may not see their answer until the following Monday morning. In reality, mobile communication normally allows for a much quicker response.

Modern day technology can be intrusive. A holiday should mean a holiday, away from the pressures of work. We should not need to be tempted to answer a text, an email, a media message or to phone the office when we are sunning it on a beach, sat in a peaceful valley by a lake, or admiring the view from a mountain top. I is a long time since I took a holiday of more than a few days at Christmas. In the USA, they celebrate Christmas Day and Boxing Day then it is back to work. It is the same in the Netherlands and numerous other countries. We are lucky here to have jobs that provide 4 or 5 weeks holiday a year plus public holidays. The allowance is much less in the USA. Last night I was on the phone to some musician friends in Nova Scotia, and they take Christmas Day off for celebrations and only two weeks holiday a year, the point being that your availability will not always coincide with that of your overseas customers or selling partners.

We now have multiple media at our disposal, for use 24 hours a day if we want to. So really this is a personal time management issue. You can actually make the technology work for you rather than control you. I am not a great fan of scheduled messaging on social and business media, but it does have its place in keeping customers aware of what you do. If we plan well then very few things in business life are emergencies, and if there is an emergency it is almost impossible these days to be 100% out of signal (although there is a place in Iceland I know!).

Ultimately people like to do business with people, and while online interactions may go some way to delivering your messages, there will probably never be a substitute for a personal greeting, a handshake, a hug, or however many kisses on whichever cheek local tradition may require!

Article written by John Reed - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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