Domestic IT Outsourcing – The Importance of Understanding Time Zones

Outsourcing your projects to contractors in various time zones requires a familiarity with the language of time zones in order to communicate effectively and never miss an important meeting. The simple and common mistake of specifying a time as 9 AM (EDT) when you should have specified 9 AM (EST) can cause you to miss an important meeting. In this article I will explore the complexities of time zones in the U.S. and how to communicate properly to avoid any problems.

The Complexities of Time Zones
Excluding Alaska and Hawaii, the U.S. has four time zones; Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. When we say “9 AM Eastern”, we’re also saying “8 AM Central”, “7 AM Mountain”, and “6 AM Pacific”. All of these occur at the same time. The map below provides a geographic view of the various time zones:

As you can see, time zone borders do not lie neatly on longitudinal lines or even along state borders. In fact, there are places where these time zone borders don’t seem to make much sense at all. Have a look at Central Idaho, for example. If you’re traveling from Montana to Oregon through Central Idaho, you could leave Central Time Zone, enter Pacific Time Zone, leave Pacific Time Zone, enter Central Time Zone again, and then leave Central Time Zone one last time to finally end back up in Pacific Time Zone… and all while traveling in a straight line East to West. What’s the lesson? It’s not readily apparently which time zone a city is in when it’s near a time zone border. Ask your business contacts for their time zone, and keep this information in your CRM system or contact book.

In addition to these crazy borders, there are more complexities. Twice per year we set our clocks forward or backward by one hour to account for Daylight Savings Time. There’s a rich history behind this tradition which is not the focus of this article, but interesting nonetheless. On top of this, some places do not participate in this tradition, thus making time zone conversions even more difficult. It’s practically impossible to memorize all of the information needed to make sure you properly communicate meeting times and such. Just make sure you have access to the tools needed to help you when necessary. Many resources exist only to help with time zone conversions and such.

Daylight Savings Time, Standard Time
OK, now we’re going to talk about that which is, probably to most, a misunderstood and misused acronym when communicating meeting time. I’ve seen this a lot in my business. Many people always use “EST”, for example, to specify “Eastern Time”, but that’s not accurate. “EST” means “Eastern Standard Time” not “Eastern Time”, and it’s an acronym that should only be used six months out of the year. “Standard Time” refers to the time of year during the Winter months. “Daylight Savings Time” refers to the time of the year during the Summer months. So, if you want to say “9 AM Eastern” and it’s during the Winter months, only then is it OK to say “9 AM EST”. Otherwise you should say “9 AM EDT” (Eastern Daylight Time). The way I remember this is that, during the Summer we have more daylight. So I know the Summer is “Daylight Savings Time”. I like Summer, so I consider this a special time of year. That’s another way to help me remember that the Winter months are just “standard” months… or “Standard Time”. Here’s the take-away. If your 9 AM meeting is scheduled some time after “Spring forward” and before “Fall back” (ie, the Summer months) then the meeting time should be communicated as “9 AM (EDT)”, “9 AM (CDT)”, “9 AM (MDT)”, or “9 AM (PDT)”… the first letter of the acronym being the time zone abbreviation, and the other two letters standing for “Daylight Time”. Conversely, if your 9 AM meeting is scheduled some time after “Fall back” and before “Spring forward” (ie, the Winter months) then the meeting time should be communicated as “9 AM (EST)”, “9 AM (CST)”, “9 AM (MST)”, or “9 AM (PST)”… the first letter of the acronym being the time zone abbreviation, and the other two letters standing for “Standard Time”. Try to keep this straight and you’ll never be late (or early) for a meeting.

Internet Time
By this point you might be asking yourself “Why does this have to be so complicated?”. It’s a good question. And, it’s a question Swiss watch makers asked themselves when they invented Internet Time. The idea is simple. Let’s get rid of all time zones, time changes, and other unnecessary complexities that always get in the way when we try to communicate event times with each other. There is just one world time, and it’s the same for everyone. The day is no longer divided into 24 hours, but rather 1000 equal parts, called a “beat”. Each beat lasts for about 1 minute 26 seconds. Such a radical shift in or reference of time would not be an easy transition, but there’s no doubt that such a system, once we are acclimated to it, resolves many of the problems we currently face with representing time under out current system of time measurement.

The Lesson & Etiquette
So what do we take away from all of this? The main lesson I want to communicate is that you should always strive to be accurate in your communications of time. Never use acronyms if you’re not sure you know the meaning (“EST” is a common example). Understand that when you communicate time, you are explicitly communicating some or all of the time parameters, and implicitly communicating the rest. For example, if I say “meet me at 9AM”, you understand that I’m referring to 9AM in our mutual time zone. “9 AM” was explicit, and because we both live in the Eastern time zone, for example, the “Eastern Time” was implicit. One last piece of advice regarding etiquette. When communicating with your clients, customers, and other business partners to whom you are providing a service, when you say “9 AM” it should be understood this means “9 AM” in their time zone. As a courtesy to those who give you their business, you always want to make things easier for them and cater to their needs. As such, don’t offload the time zone math onto them. Use their time zone. The same courtesy can/should be extended to you by your vendors and contractors. To remember this, ask yourself which way the money flows. The source of payments should also be the implicit time zone when no time zone is specified.

For some tips on how to manage meetings across multiple timezones with Google Calendar, click here.

And stop back next week for some tips on how to choose the best freelance site to fit your needs.

Posted on January 15, 2015 and filed under Domestic IT Outsourcing.