What the Timezone?

The clocks have gone back. I didn’t realise this until 5pm yesterday when it turned out to actually be 4pm and I could be lazy for an extra hour. Joy!

We’re now entering that awkward week in the online world when scheduled meeting times in the USA and Europe are no longer what they were. The five hour difference between here and New York is now four hours, and everyone’s going to get confused and it all gets screwed up. This is why we schedule in UTC (because it doesn’t change), but confusion is inevitable. I also have the problem of this coming Tuesday, when my devhub meeting (scheduled at UTC) is now at the same time as my WordCamp London meeting (scheduled in UK time).

As it always does, this got me thinking about the problem of time zones. In Lisbon, I’m in the same timezone as London so the rhythm of my normal day at work isn’t interrupted by my change of location. I work intensely on my own from about 7am, until about 1pm or 2pm, when I start dealing with communication. People still show up at the same time as I expect them – east coast USA from lunchtime onwards, west coasters from 4pm. There’s a narrow window during which I can talk to my west coast friends. I like to finish work at 6pm, though I often find what happens is that I’ll flip my computer open at 7pm or 8pm to look at something and I’ll get a ping from someone in the US. It’s anywhere from 11am to 2pm for them, so why not? And since I like chatting I end up in a conversation and then I realise that it’s 10pm and my evening is gone.

I was in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year, at a documentation conference. It was one of those conferences in which I didn’t really know anyone and I’d gone to learn, not socialise. Besides, I was jet lagged, and exhausted from a few nights at WordCamp Miami. Instead of going to the social events, I hung out at my apartment in the evening and got takeaway food. I switched on my computer to find someone to chat to and there wasn’t anyone around. My European friends were tucked up in bed, as were many of the East Coast US people no doubt, and the West Coasters had finished work. I realised then that while I had normalised being on my laptop until late at night, it wasn’t normal for the very people that I was talking to. Many of them finish work at 5pm or 6pm and they’re done.

Meeting schedules online have a big impact on your day. Stopping work to get involved with a meeting can break the flow of whatever you are doing. I try to schedule the docs chats for around 4-5pm UTC. This is usually early enough that Europeans can make it, but not so early that the west coasters are still in bed. We used to have it at 9pm, like the dev chat, but the problem then is that you can’t really finish work until it’s done. Even if you clock off at 5pm, you’ve still got work to do so you can’t totally switch off. And then the chat happens, and you have ideas, and then it’s difficult to get to sleep so the next day is all screwed up because you can’t get up so early. That said, I know that 5pm isn’t such a good time for our friends in Australia and, in the end, a chosen time isn’t going to suit someone somewhere.

All of our meetings are filled with people at different points of their day. I know that I am way more productive in the morning and by the afternoon I’m ready to finish. We end up with chats in which some people are just woken up, others are half way through their day, some are about to finish, others are eating dinner, and others still are sat in bed with their laptops. The whole spectrum of awakeness is represented.

For the past week, Mike Schroder (aka Shredder) has been staying with us. Mike’s based on the west coast of America so it was interesting to have him experience both the community and his job from our perspective. Morning meetings were now in the evening. He would have his stand-up at the end of the day, instead of the start. It also gave him a sense of what it’s like to have to attend a chat just before going to bed. He said that he finally understood why people in Europe complained about the dev chat time. It’s good for people from the US to actually experience the community, the meetings, and even a release, from our timezone. It really is a different experience, and it’s hard to convey unless you actually live it.

Each of us, in our own time zone get a different experience of the community. Different people are in IRC, are on Skype or Twitter. There are different people to socialise and work with. As I travel from country to country over the next year, I wonder how my interactions will be affected by the time zone differences. In December I’m going to Thailand. This will put me 7 hours ahead of London and 15 hours ahead of San Francisco. I guess that means I’ll have to engage in work in an entirely new way again. I’m hoping it means that with minimal human contact I’ll be hyper productive and that I can spend less time on the internet and more time on the beach.

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