Distributed Teams: Wut “red” day!?

We’ve talked about time zones and examined the clock in a lightly distributed  team. That should be enough – right? Nope. There are other surprises like vacation  …and parental leave   …oh, and “red days”.

You might think that all of this is straight forward and regulated, or at least well-known. Well, it is probably “self-evident” per country, as in “evident to myself and no one else”.  Let’s serve up some examples on what might hit you.

Red as in a day off

“Red days” is the Swedish name for public holidays and comes from the ink used in most cellulose calendars. Red, public, bank – whatever your prefix is on the word “day”, it usually means “day off”. Just as the names differ, so do most things about them.

Countries like China/Hong Kong, Egypt and India and many more have roughly 15 public holidays off per year, but remember to take vacation into account when looking at these numbers [1]. Rules, tradition etc play important parts, some are on fixed dates, others move around a lot in the calendar. So, get to know your locales.

Another gotcha on public holidays: You can’t even trust that the “day” is a full day. In Sweden a day like Walpurgis (“Valborgsmässoafton”) and several more are in a “shady red”. Meaning it will be marked as a “day off” in the calendar, but not be regulated by law and instead up for negotiation. Most Swedish companies treat this as a half of a working day. But sometimes this is even more complicated. Some companies add an extra hour added to such a “half day” as to turn other “squeeze days” into vacation [2].

Oh, you can’t trust days off to be per country either. In New Zealand there is the “Auckland Anniversary Day” which celebrates the arrival of Captain Hobson [3] (yup, this public holiday the man the celebration himself). This day is only observed in the northern half of the North Island of New Zealand following some regional boundary abandoned in 1876. You can’t go local enough, right?

What to do:

  • Turn on public holidays in your favorite digital calendar, but don’t trust what you see there.
  • Set up some policy. Despite rules and regulations there is usually some interpretation to do.
  • Set expectations with the people in your team/company. I prefer to have people kick in when needed and letting “red days” mean time off.

Black as in nothing will happen – at all

“Black” is my name for those days. Whatever you might think, these days are off – whatever the calendar or law might say. Case in point: Mid Summer’s Eve[4]. The event marks summer solstice and is a common celebration in places like Scandinavia. If you lived here, you would understand why.

Copyright Midsummer by Carsten HvidHowever, the eve isn’t actually a public holiday in Sweden, at least not regulated by law.

Close to nothing will happen during this day – except pagan rituals like dancing around a strange pole dressed in green and flowers. And of course some drinking. (Photograph by Carsten Hvid)

Whatever you might think, you are not likely to change such a “black day”. Hint: Mid Summer’s Eve been like this since the stone age. The Christian church gave up and dug up saint St John to celebrate on the same day.

What to do:

  • Take a break and have fun!

Vacation – again?

Vacation length varies across the world – that we do expect. Regulated vacation could be anything from like a month down to   …nothing, as is the case in the US. (However, they tend to get two weeks.)
That is quite a difference. The differences do not stop at the number of days.

Sweden is at the very top of the “Statutory Vacation” list and often times you hear “you’re off again?” from colleagues abroad. [5] Consensus culture and a flexible vacation scheme make this worse and could block important decision-making for the major part of the summer. [6]

Culture plays a big role too and will affect your ability as a team to deliver. Take for instance the UK with less vacation length than the Swedes. When the latter go for vacation they clock out for an extended period. In my experience the brits tend to take their annual leave in bits over the year and typically extend weekends etc.

In some places where I’ve worked, work culture on the UK side made the people go into a semi-stealth mode when they approached holiday. Suddenly, with a heads up of just a couple of days, a small note would silently appear in the calendar. Or during your colleague’s vacation you just got your email got an auto reply saying “Sorry, but I’m away today on annual leave”. Surprise.

Your mileage is likely to vary, but do take local customers and rules into account when you plan your support and deliveries.

What to do:

  • Plan! A simple Google doc where you note please vacation goes a long way. A common calendar might work if you’re a small team, but doesn’t scale.
  • Specify. Where I’ve worked we typically went glocal, meaning we usually followed the laws and tradition per country. People plan their lives around these days and trying to set some standard across board is usually not worth the effort.

Collecting daddy/mommy points

You might have a team of juniors and seniors. Both are valuable in different ways. But their lives could affect work. They might be into an extended party period or they might be into babies. (I love kids, please have some!)

As you might suspect there could be consequences for your team [6]. This varies a lot, but I’ll use Sweden and fathers as an example. The parental leave here are among the best in the world and society is changing quickly. I do see signs of similar improvements on various levels in other countries.

I’ve taken two paternity leaves of them myself nearly a decade ago, each on the order of three to four months. They we’re great. Today, within IT, I typically see the guys taking closer to half a year. That is a big shift in a rather a short period.

All of this is very different across countries. But I’m sure that it does affect your team somehow.

What to do:

  • Read up on rules and regulations per locale.
  • Help the parents to solve their life puzzles. You will get loyal colleagues and their help late in the night.
  • Plan. In SE: Having a baby today means two weeks off for the father and, a year from now, several months of paternity leave.

Finally

When it comes to handling things like time and vacation etc in a distributed team it usually works the best if you go multinational, not international – in others words, adapt. In my view there are too many problems in standardizing. Just plan and make it transparent to the team. You got other goals that are more important.

I think I covered as much as I can handle – and probably you too – on the subject of distributed teams and time.

Next blog up: What’s the secret ingredient in just about any method/dogma that promises to save your distributed team?

/Björn

[1] Top ten countries with the most public holidays

[2] “Squeeze day” – a day that land in between regular public holiday and a weekend. Thus, they are very interesting to turn into a day off and have a long weekend.

[3] Captain Hobson and the Auckland Anniversary Day

[4] Midsummer

[5] Annual leave

[6] Consensus does have its advantages though, like the ability to get a group to work towards one single goal. But that’s another blog.

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