Managing Time Perceptions Across the Globe

Many of today’s global teams manage to work well across physical time zones. However, managing perceptions of time across cultures can be more challenging.

Culturally-based perceptions of time and time management practices inform how we plan, collaborate, and perform. Countries like Germany and Japan are well known for tight-time keeping, whereas in other countries such as Brazil and France, the tendency is to perceive time as more flexible with a focus on the event rather than on time itself.

How Are Global Teams Managing Cultural Differences in Time Perception?

Consider this scenario: A US-based team working with their counterparts in India seems to constantly run into issues with timely communication and delivery. Despite providing clear instructions, sending calendar reminders, and receiving verbal assurances from colleagues, delays remain persistent. The US-based team feels frustrated with their counterparts in Hyderabad and perceives this as a reliability issue. On the other hand, the colleagues based in India believe that the team in New York only cares about tasks and deadlines. The India-based team has the perception that the US-based team is always in a rush and extremely focused on the schedule rather than getting the job done by working closely with others and developing an understanding of the team’s workload, priorities, and likely timeframe for completion.

In some cultures where time is perceived as a resource not to be wasted, the tendency is to expect quick results and focus intently on timing and the task at hand. Delays and postponements are seen as interruptions to the sequence. Lack of punctuality may be perceived as rude or disrespectful.

Other cultures perceive time as more flexible. Adjustments to schedules and/or delays are not so unusual, as tasks take whatever time is necessary and may be delayed should more urgent priorities emerge. Priorities can be re-ordered as needed and largely influenced by relationships and seniority within the group. Deadlines may be considered as a general guidance. An emphasis on tight control of timing may be perceived as hasty and narrowly focused on the schedule rather than the outcome.

Best Practices for Managing Cultural Differences and Perceptions of Time

When working with colleagues with a more flexible outlook on time, such as Brazilians:

  • Build in milestones and check-ins to ensure final deadlines are met
  • Provide context and check for understanding with open-ended questions
  • Differentiate between “hard” and “soft” deadlines
  • Set aside time to enquire about workloads and priorities

When working with colleagues across the globe with a linear time preference, such as the Swiss:

  • Keep your time-focused colleagues informed on changes in your workload and priorities
  • Ask for clarification if the task is not understood
  • Immediately communicate any issues that may impact on-time delivery
  • Prepare for meetings and keep firmly to deadlines to gain the appreciation of your colleagues

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