January 10, 2013
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An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’

If there’s one topic that seems to stimulate the passions of Asia-based executives working for Western multinationals, it is the ‘curse’ of late night conference calls inflicted upon them by usually a North American head office.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for quite some time, but I am finally prompted to post after a conversation over drinks with a friend of mine last night who is head of corporate affairs in Asia for a major US multinational.

She pushed back recently when her company’s headquarters asked her to be on a regular call at 10 p.m. Singapore time (which is 9 a.m. Eastern time in North America). When I heard this, I felt she was quite right to have done so in the reasonable and polite way that she described. But I know from personal experience that it is never easy to resist even radically nocturnal calls when the headquarters insists, and nobody wants to seem like they are somehow being ‘difficult.’ A more equitable time for these calls – mutually but fairly inconvenient – would be 7 or 8 a.m. or p.m. at both ends.

Of course the corporate headquarters of a truly global firm should not casually impose these ‘command performance’ late night calls in the first place for routine purposes. That said, nobody gainsays doing these for matters that are actually urgent. I’ve been in the client service business for more than 20 years and will always do calls with customers day or night especially in case of emergency. Indeed, I’ve created 24×7 crisis communications telephone hotlines to help facilitate around-the-clock instant accessibility.

The calls that rub many executives on this side of the Pacific the wrong way are the regular ones scheduled at midmorning for headquarters and midevening or even towards midnight for Asia. In North America the people on the call are starting their day well rested. Their kids are probably off to school and they are usually at work during normal office hours. Meanwhile, over here in Asia, it is well beyond the end of what has already been a very long day during what should ideally be personal time. There could be kids to put down for the night and possibly a spouse annoyed that a family evening is lost.

Sometimes the scheduling of asymmetrical calls is ‘suggested’ but often they are just announced and set without prior consultation. This is sometimes done unwittingly out of ignorance, by people who just aren’t mindful of the time zones. However, sometimes it is not, and the subordinate Asia end is just supposed to go along with it.

Such an arbitrary approach of course does not make morale soar among the Asians. The unstated message being sent from North America is ‘we are headquarters and you will do things at our convenience’ and ‘your time – especially your personal time – is not as important as our time.’

In the end, I believe that a subsidiary in Asia should dutifully follow the preferences of headquarters. However, if companies want to say that they are ‘global’ in rhetoric then surely they should act that way in reality as they communicate with their own colleagues.

If Western companies want to be serious about ‘getting Asia right’ (even if this is a merely minor symbolic gesture internally), then they should treat their Asian colleagues with more respect and courtesy in the setting of these calls. ‘Eastern’ is an important time zone in North America but Eastern is also the direction of economic power in this world and so Asian time should command the same consideration. This seems especially valid when we’re seeing stories like this one in the media it seems just about every day reporting that “By 2030 Asia will overtake North America and Europe combined in global power.”

In the great scheme of things, irksome ‘midnight oil’ conference calls are not exactly a major corporate issue, but we North Americans better get used to the rise of Asia and this is just one small way to get with the new program in terms of how we go about things.

[I must provide the disclaimer that I’m not referring to any one company or client in the post above but just drawing on many experiences with this my eleventh year in Asia-Pacific. I should also add that I think the situation is improving, especially aided by executive mobility via trans-Pacific talent transfers].

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