Working remotely across continents

Posted on 2021-04-06

Earlier this year, I joined Shopify and after a few weeks of dedicated onboarding, I started working with my actual team. Shopify had started to embrace Digital by Design a few months into the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which also meant that my work could (and would) be done from Berlin, Germany, at least for the time being.

The impact of time zones

Going into this job, I knew that the majority of my team is based in Canada, i. e. their days will be 5-9 hours behind mine. Even though I have 10 years of experience working remotely, such a big time difference is new for me. However, it turned out to be less dramatic than I had thought it would be.

I am not exactly an early bird, but I do not want to end my day too late, either. As such, I would prefer to work somewhere from 1000 until about 1900, which is between 0400 and 1300 Eastern Time, or 0100 and 1000 Pacific Time. If you assume everyone else’s working time to be somewhere between 0800 and 1800, there is not much overlap between Pacific Time and Central European Time.

PST                    |------------------|
EST              |------------------|

EST              |------------------|
CET      |----------------|

PST                    |------------------|
CET      |----------------|
UTC    08  10  12  14  16  18  20  22  24  02  04  06  08

If possible, I would love to have 3-4 hours of overlap. To me, that feels like the sweet spot between collaborating with team members and “focus time”. Alas, that is not possible between Pacific Time and Central European Time, unless (at least) one of those adopts unusual working times.

Fortunately, unusual working times is what actually happens to be the case here: The team member in Vancouver (Pacific Time) starts his day at 0700, i. e. there are 3 hours of overlap between the two of us without either of us having to bend their working times.

We skilfully dodged a bullet, I suppose.

Half solo, half overlap

Overall, that means I have 4-5 hours of “focus time” until around 1500 Central European Time, followed by 3-4 hours of “team time”. Those hours are meant for pairing, meetings, etc.; whatever needs to happen for your team members and you to clear potential blockers along the way, as well as to make everyone feel they are part of the same team. I am not the most extroverted person out there, so I usually just have 1-on-1 calls with some of the people around every now and then. It is my way of having water cooler (for coffee drinkers: the coffee machine) conversations.

Even though there was no time zone difference at all at my previous job, I stuck to the idea of “half solo, half overlap”. Everyone knew at which times I would definitely be available for synchronous communication and/or unblocking our work streams. At the same time, it meant that outside of that overlap, I could work whenever it was the most convenient for me. It also meant that working from abroad did not have a noticeable impact on our work, as long as there was some working time overlap.

The end of the day

Working at Shopify, I was sent a device to do my work on. That lets me have a somewhat clean cut between my working time and my free time, as I can just unplug the Shopify device from the docking station and hook up my own device instead. My password manager does not know about my Shopify-related passwords and my GitHub account – the only private account I also use for work purposes – has work-related things separated via single sign-on. Without those passwords readily available, there is no easy way for me to look at work-related things, which separates both aspects of life very well for me.

When I still got to use my personal device for work years ago, that separation was a lot harder for obvious reasons. I tried to address that by having two different password managers, so it would be harder for me to access work-related credentials, but it was still easy enough to just enter the master password. It was convenient when travelling, because I only had to bring one device, but in hindsight, I can say for sure that it was not good for my work-life balance, at all.

Why do I love working remotely so much?

However, once I had figured out “the right way” to work remotely, I did not want to have to go to an office building every day anymore. Working remotely allowed me to do so many things that were vastly beneficial to my personal life, e. g. reducing the “long-distance” time in my long-distance relationship. It also allowed me to perform much better by working at times my circadian rhythm would prefer to, instead of working hours that were more or less imposed on me. Last, but not least, getting to save over 1.5 hours every day by not commuting adds up very quickly.

Being able to work remotely is a huge privilege, especially during this pandemic, and I am glad I have got to experience that privilege for pretty much my entire professional life. If there is any silver lining to the pandemic, I hope that all the fears of employers with regard to remote work will not have manifested and they will keep allowing their employees to work remotely whenever they want to.

Huy Dinh

Huy Dinh

Senior Software Engineer
at Shopify

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