Out of office, all the time
October 13, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

My boss travels 300+ days per year, often to countries in which internet and phone connections are unreliable or nonexistent. Communication is often bursty, sporadic, at odd hours, and tinged with anxiety. How can I better manage expectations and limit stress for both of us?

My boss, whom I've only met in person a few times, has chosen a lifestyle of constant international travel. For most of the year, he's on the road visiting our clients throughout the globe in a variety of time zones. When he's not on the move, he'll spend maybe a couple of days in a row at our home office, which is a several-hour time zone difference from where I work.

Most of the time, though, his demanding travel schedule makes him (understandably) stressed and anxious, and getting a hold of him during regular work hours to review deliverables or talk about a project can be difficult. I often get vague "Can we talk??" emails at odd hours, making me feel like I need to be constantly prepared to drop everything and set up a Skype call to set his mind (and mine!) at ease.

Does anyone have any tips or experience for working with a boss who's always on the move? Getting streams of one-sentence emails from Mongolia or East Timor at 1am when he finally has a chance to catch up is starting to wear on me.
posted by a bird, it's a bird to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well unless you signed a contract to be on-call 24/7 I don't think you should feel obligated to check your email at 1am. Maybe reminding him that your work hours are 9 to 5 or whatever they are and that you are not available outside of those times. (ie: you are at your night class/ at the gym/ babysitting etc).

My former boss was the CEO and he was always out of town, sometimes he would email me on holidays but I just didn't check my emails those days- because they are national holidays. I'm guessing whatever your boss is doing in those foreign countries seems more urgent to him than your own deliverables. So with regards to those, I would try to find another supervisor with which you can discuss your projects and make sure you are on track, preferably someone who works in the same building as you, and then you can check in with your boss when you've finished something. This is what I did, I'm not sure if it will work for you.
posted by winterportage at 8:23 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing. If he's traveling that much, traveling needs to be the expected standard thing. It's ridiculous to be constantly stressed about something that is just the prevailing way things are.

You guys need a workflow for travel days.

You need a workflow for what happens when he's off the grid.

You need a workflow for when he's in X or Y difficult time zone (and identify what time zones/world regions those are, specifically, and how often you can expect him to be there).

Your work hours need to be pegged to his waking hours, or, if you don't exclusively work for this guy/he's not your "direct report" supervisor, you need to find a happy medium where your work hours can overlap with hours where he's awake. Or, alternatively, you need to get to a place where a phone call in the middle of the night is just business as usual and not panic inducing.

On a personal level, you need to find some kind of balance where it works out that he sometimes needs to have a 1AM Skype call. Maybe that's paid overtime. Maybe that's an understanding that you'll have a certain amount of "turnaround time" and a late night call = coming in later the next morning. Maybe that's negotiating specific times (pegged to time zone and off-the-grid status) when you're not available.

But above all, you need to get to a place where Skype calls from East Timor are just business as usual.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 AM on October 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

One of my bosses is a VIP who travels often, though not quite this much.

You need to have a frank conversation with him about what his expectations are re: your availability. Does he need you to answer his 1am emails from Mongolia and East Timor right away, or can you reply during business hours? When he says "can we talk?" at some odd time, does he mean you should call him right then, or is it okay for you to schedule something the next day?

Once you understand what he needs/wants from you, you can decide (a) if it works for you and (b) what specific responses and tools can help you work together. But it's very hard for me to give realistic tips without knowing what your boss expects from you. If what he needs/wants doesn't work for you, time for a new job.

I encourage you to play up the "how can I limit your stress?" and "how can I make you less anxious about X and Y?" when you talk to him. He will be more receptive if you make this more about helping him and less about making life easier for yourself.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:23 AM on October 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

Can the company pay to send you to the home office next time he's going to be there? You can set an agenda to deal with these questions along with mutual updates and exchanges about the project(s). Maybe routinize that so it happens quarterly? It's easier to have these discussions in person.

Also, for what it's worth, I've been your boss and I got up in the middle of the night to call the staff during their work hours, not the other way around.
posted by carmicha at 8:30 AM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't understand why there are "Can we talk??" emails if this is how it always is.

You set Skype meeting windows 4 days a week at 1am and 6am GMT (whatever - pick the general beginning and end of your workday, because you are the one with the set location, but schedule them GMT). He shows up or he doesn't. When possible, he schedules his life and travel so that he is available at those times, but if he's on flights or in other meetings or is stuck on the side of the road waiting for a flock of bison to pass, so be it. If he KNOWS he's going to be in the air for the Tuesday morning window, he tells you that in advance and you cancel that one.

You might also talk about a joint hierarchy of comms methodologies. Apparently the most stable communication platform in the world right now is SMS, so maybe it goes Skype, voice, IM, email-volley, IRC, then text.

Ideally you guys fail to miss each other 3-4 times a week. Work gets done. You communicate about the work and also about how to do the work, so you can solve some of the other riddles.

I'm going to guess that the world-traveler thing is a personality as much as a lifestyle, and so the burden is going to be on you to be organized, but don't let him shirk the boundaries that need to be on him as a manager. You don't get up at 3am unless he's in jail or the hospital, he gets up at 3am to make the Wednesday meeting because he's the boss.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:06 AM on October 13, 2014

A Satellite Phone would help for the times he does not have phone/internet service.
posted by Sophont at 9:14 AM on October 13, 2014

He's not going to be able to review anything right away because of his schedule. At best, it will be hours later when he has access to internet or is awake because of the time difference, but if he's traveling, it sounds like it could be a couple days. You guys just need to know this and plan for everything taking a couple days to approve. As such, I would send him clear deadline when you can. If he's always running behind his subordinates, prioritizing workflow is probably chaotic for him. "The drop dead date we need this approved is Sunday October 12 at 3pm ET." And you should ask him to be clear about deadlines he has as well so you can prioritize what you're sending him. You guys are in a position where you can never give each other same-day deadlines and that should be an understanding. Everything is going to take a couple days, so set deadlines that give you the time you need.

You could also maybe utilize something like a Google Calendar or maybe Trello. Keep all the ongoing projects there with what is due when, what is projected to be due, etc. That way, even from across the world, he is able to glance at what is going on and get the overall picture of where things stands. It might be less chaotic when he can check that and get a sense of how things are going.

I agree with the advice up thread that you should talk to him and present it as looking for ways to help him manage and how things can work more smoothly for him. That should, in turn, limit your stress and make things work more smoothly for you. (Unless what your boss wants is you to have email alerts on your phone that will wake you up at 3am when he emails you.) Use the conversation to also set some boundaries -- "I can be checking email from xam to xpm but outside of that, I may not be able to respond to emails until the next day." He can send the 1am email from Mongolia, but you'll see it at 9am your time and deal with it then. If he knows that, he may not send a useless email you won't get for another 6 hours. He may just wait to respond until it can be a productive message.

If possible, maybe you can get his travel schedule. I imagine he must be planning trips in advance somewhat. I'd try to have a schedule of what timezone he is in. Maybe you can find an hour where your schedules overlap, i.e. it's still a normal hour to be awake for both of you, and you can do check-in calls. Or it might just be helpful to know that you guys are going to have an 8+ hour delay vs. a 3 hour one, depending where he is.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:15 AM on October 13, 2014

I would schedule a meeting with him daily. Just a 15-minute touch base to ask questions, clarify things, etc.

Set the expectation that you're working from 9-5 in your time zone, and that you'll handle things first thing in the morning when you get in. In fact, block out your first hour daily just to deal with 'boss stuff.'

Be clear in communicating with your boss:

Until I get those figures from you, I cannot move forward with the Gazingus Pin report.

Set up a weekly one-on-one, if for just 30 minutes, to catch up on what you're working on, what he's expecting and to solidify times and dates for travel in the up-coming week so that you can set those touch-base meetings.

Here's how I'd approach it:


It would be benificial if we could set up a schedule during the week to touch base daily, to insure that things are flowing smoothly and that all of our deadlines are being met. I've checked your schedule and you have an hour on Tuesday. I've put it on your calendar. We can then work out times that are convenient for us both for the upcoming week.

That's what I'd do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:27 AM on October 13, 2014

You need an online project management system like Teamwork that he can access from wherever so you can both leave status reports, updated docs and notes on various projects underway.

"Can we talk??"

Say yes but set boundaries:

"Absolutely. Looking at your time zone, I can be available tomorrow from 7 am - 10 am your local time, or 5 am - 6 pm your local time."

We can then work out times that are convenient for us both for the upcoming week.

I would instead say "We can then work out times that work for both of us for the upcoming week." It's not about it being convenient for you, it's about it being in a reasonable span of working hours.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:55 AM on October 13, 2014

I agree with those above who have suggested first, and foremost, setting very rigid office hours. If, of course, that is possible. Sometimes, depending on your business, you might be required to be more flexible. However, having some sort of point of reference - an "open to emails" time, a time when you are logged in to skype & available, etc. - can limit some stress on both of you, increase communication, and generally give the both of you a space to communicate.

I have found that sending two weekly status emails, to be VERY beneficial. I send one at the beginning of the week with a "this is what my priorities are, let me know if I need to be focusing on something else." The second I send at the end of the week with "this is what I have accomplished." it helps remind your boss about what you are working on. I got the idea from this post, which will also give you sample email templates.

Hope this helps :)
posted by Rage-chel at 10:29 AM on October 13, 2014

I'm going to guess that the world-traveler thing is a personality as much as a lifestyle, and so the burden is going to be on you to be organized

Quoted for truth.

I am betting he is one of those guys who likes to off-load everything immediately so he can move on to the next issue/location/country. Constant motion, yep.

One thing both of you can do is have two clock widgets on your computer monitor: one set to local time for you; one set to local time for him, for which you need to update according to his schedule.

Having his flight schedule mapped out for each week will also be helpful. This is assuming he has a set schedule for each trip and isn't changing it at the last minute. I'd do this on a paper calendar with post-it notes and tack it up over my desk so I only need to look up to check it.

The one line emails. Okay, I'd prefer that because emails that can be sorted by subject and then replied to, rather than an email that touches on a bunch of different subjects but again, that's me. If your boss is impatient, he just wants to get things off his mental to-do list and shift them on to you. So he churns out a bunch of brief emails and then he can forget about them.

With the desktop widget, he can readily see that you are in a different time zone, even a different day, and he can temper his anticipated response time.

The Skype availability emails, I don't understand. If I am working, my Skype says I am online and therefore available to Skype. If I am offline it means I am "out of the office". Again, if you are getting these messages at 3AM, and it's a 12 hour difference, then it's 3PM his time and he can wait and try again at 9PM, not too late for him and you'll be back in the office. He travels most of the year but not every night. How long does he usually spend in each locale?

As others have mentioned, you need to find out what his expectations are. It's quite possible he really would like you to be available at all hours. After all, his connections are erratic and you are static.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:01 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

+1 on the suggestion that he should have a satellite phone. If he travels that much and to places with erratic cell service, this can be a life saver (in more ways than one). It should be something his office pays for. I know people doing archaeology in really remote places in Alaska and Canada who swear by them.
posted by gudrun at 11:23 AM on October 13, 2014

I think the answer to the question depends on how much autonomy you're being given and how much your boss is micro-managing (or attempting to micro-manage) your work.

While not as bad as your situation, for a few years I worked for a boss who was constantly on the road. I was on the road a lot, too -- at one point we scheduled a meeting in the Denver airport lounge.

Even though I had a lot of autonomy and discretion in handling some clients, there were certain things that I needed to run by my boss, things which I couldn't decide on my own. And there were other things where I needed him to talk to the client, or one of the others at our firm, or for him to sign off on my recommendation or agree with my analysis.

So where my boss' lack-of-availability was preventing us from moving forward, my emails had to highlight that. A lot of this is project management. "Here are the questions I am still waiting for guidance on, in order of priority." (Even better yet if the questions are YES/NO questions.)

I also really tried to distinguish hard between hard external deadlines versus internal deadlines, and to communicate that clearly: "I need to know if you want to go with Vendor X or Vendor Y. I need to know the decision no later than ______, since the client's people need to put the purchasing paperwork through by COB and we need to have the contract run by _____ first."

Or: "I need you to sign off on John's affidavit ASAP. The court order requires us to file it tonight -- i.e. it needs to be filed no later than ____ local time for you."

Distinguish this from all of the hand-holding, waffling or other less-important stuff.

Regarding time-zone issues, yeah. It is really hard to have work-life balance when dealing with co-workers, clients or other obligations across the globe. I remember setting 4am alarms to join a client conference call. In some jobs, that's par for the course; in others, it's extraordinary to intrude into the personal time. I think a lot of my reaction to your situation really would depend on what the work culture is at the place where you work, your seniority (lawyer? managing director? or admin assistant?) and how you are being compensated for the odd-hours availability.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:44 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would make some allowance for calls from home at unorthodox times (eg 7 am pacific for Europe, 9 pm Pacific for india). I would require all calls of this nature to be scheduled 24 hours in advance. I would ask to keep non office hour calls to max 2x week. I would also refuse calls during sleeping hours. I aggressively schedule around breakfast, dinner, kid bedtime and fitness commitments.

In my industry it is expected to do this. Calls are meant to be as close to the business day as possible but some regions (india) are very difficult to schedule.

It's helpful to take 30 min to overlap your bosses business day if it fits in with your life but you are not on call for his business day.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:34 PM on October 13, 2014

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