Working around the clock
IT’S Sunday dinner in the Khanna family’s spotless three-bedroom condo, and the matriarch, Ritu, is happy. She munches a spicy stew of cauliflower, carrots and peas with her husband, Vivek, and their teenage son, Kanishka. She and Vivek swap memories of growing up in Kolkata and sip Chardonnay.
Daylight slips away. Then so does her husband.
“There it starts,” she says.
Vivek sits up a little straighter. His BlackBerry begins to buzz more frequently. He seems ready to spring from the table.
That’s because his attention is shifting to another place and time -- Mumbai, India, nearly 9,000 miles away. There it’s just before 9 a.m. on Monday morning, 12 1/2 hours ahead of California, and he can imagine his colleagues at the back-office outsourcing company he works for, filing into the office, turning on their computers, chatting about their weekends.
They will soon want to talk with Khanna, the firm’s U.S. director of business development, about processing payroll forms, healthcare claims and accounting vouchers. They may have leads to help him drum up more clients. The 40-year-old multitasker will take their calls and e-mail from a desk in his garage, where he sits between a foosball table and some bicycles, until 11 p.m. He will wake up to resume work before 5 a.m. so he can catch the end of the Indian workday.
“If you look at it,” he says, “I’m never at work, and I’m never off work.”
Khanna is a new breed of globalized worker, testing the limits of international commerce, his body and his family’s patience. It’s an often overlooked side effect of sending jobs overseas: Work spread across many time zones demands that managers and co-workers attune to the world’s business cycle while living out of sync with those around them.
“It’s the sun-never-sets model,” says Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex Inc., a business research firm in New York. He calls people like Khanna “time-zone shifters.” His company estimates that about half of the 46 million so-called knowledge workers in the U.S., a category that covers anyone whose primary job is to work with information, are engaged in some kind of time-zone shifting, extending the day beyond the normal 9 to 5.
More and more, their responsibilities span continents -- clients in California, colleagues in India, software engineers in Romania or China.
“Bicoastal is so passe,” Spira says.
Technology makes it all possible. Workers and managers can brainstorm, strategize and review via e-mail, instant messaging, cheap Internet-based phone calls and online videoconferencing.
Time-zone shifting means knowing that if you arranged your schedule to accommodate business in India, then dealing with Shanghai isn’t that much harder. Just add an extra 2 1/2 hours to your day.
Tacking on Japan, however, can be brutal, especially for a self-described “morning guy.” It’s only an hour later, Khanna says, but “the peak comes before dinner and goes through midnight.” He knows people -- colleagues, friends, parents at his son’s school -- who deal daily with India and Europe plus clients in the U.S. It’s a killer combination, providing no predictable daily downtime.
“They have three eight-hour shifts,” he says, laughing.
ONE can get lost trying to figure out who’s where and what time it is there. From his office in the Silicon Valley town of Saratoga, Alok Aggarwal, chairman of Evalueserve, a research and analysis firm, once miscalculated the time difference and missed a conference call with Tel Aviv. He thought the 9 p.m. appointment was at 9 a.m.
“I felt terrible for a couple days,” he says.
His life’s “time complexity,” as he calls it, increased in September when the company, which already had offices in New Delhi and Shanghai, added Chile. Setting up conference calls requires negotiation. Whose turn is it to get up at 4 a.m.? Last year Aggarwal hung three extra clocks in his office: one for New York, one for India and one for Austria, where Evalueserve’s chief executive lives.
Aggarwal’s work schedule typically stretches from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. His only break comes between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., when the U.S. workday is winding down, employees in India are still in bed and those in China are waking up and heading to work.
Many time-zone shifters erase all boundaries between work and life, never wanting customers, or co-workers with urgent needs, to feel they are not around or can’t be bothered. They sleep with their cellphones, Treos and BlackBerrys near their pillows.
Arijit Sengupta, chief executive of BeyondCore Inc., a software firm in Foster City, also in Silicon Valley, says he has answered text messages from partners and customers in both India and China without waking up.
“I am surprised the next day how coherent they were,” he says. But if the message is from a major client, “I don’t risk it.” He gets out of bed, splashes his face with water and then sends the message.
Thomas Kosnik, a consulting professor at Stanford University who collaborates with people in Singapore and Sweden from his condo in Redwood Shores, often wakes his wife, Jill, and their cats with his late-night and early-morning calls.
“My wife would rather me travel,” he says.
On most days he wears two watches. One tracks what time it is for her -- he calls it “Jill time.” The other watch has an analog and a digital face so he can monitor the time in both Stockholm and Singapore.
For the time commuter, freedom is snatched in quick patches. There are showers at 11 a.m., midafternoon walks in the park or shopping-mall trips among nannies and high school students.
“They probably don’t think I work,” says Sengupta, who typically toils away until 2 a.m.
RITU Khanna tries to inject some balance into husband Vivek’s globalized workday. She has caught him checking his BlackBerry e-mail in the bathroom in the middle of the night. When the telephone rings at 3 a.m., Vivek, who says he does not dream, is able to bounce awake on the first ring and strike an adequately professional tone.
“Some country is awake all the time,” Ritu often tells him in a teasing voice. “When do we get to sleep?”
Recently, he agreed to turn off his BlackBerry on Sunday mornings, after his wife pointed out that India and the U.S. were safely out of the office. “Ritu’s criticism got to me,” he says.
But on a recent Monday, his first call from India comes in a little before 5 a.m., as usual.
“Wait for the coffee,” he tells the caller, then hangs up.
When the phone rings again at 5:06, he answers it.
“How’s the weather? How hot? 36? 37? That’s about 100 Fahrenheit. Good for you,” he says before jumping into business. He asks about a co-worker who is needed to solve a problem. “Where is the person located? Currently. Physical time.”
At 5:45, in between calls, he makes coffee for Ritu, checks his horoscope (he’s a Taurus) and scans U.S. news headlines.
When Ritu opens the garage door 15 minutes later to go to her job at an investment bank, light floods the windowless room. It may be the end of the day in India, but it’s dawn in California.
The door closes. Vivek begins making sales calls to potential clients on the East Coast. He paces as he talks on his cordless phone. “I’ll be in Charlotte next week. I can come meet you.” He calls his company’s tech expert, who normally works in New York but this day is in San Jose. “Are you OK? I woke you up.”
At 6:25, Ritu calls from work to remind her husband to wake up Kanishka. “I’ll do it right now,” he says.
At 9, he showers and sits down to eat breakfast, but the phone rings. For the next few hours, U.S. clients call, wanting to discuss what progress has been made overnight on their projects. He often skips lunch and keeps working till midafternoon.
It may be too early to know the long-term effects of this way of life, but experts on management practices are already expressing concerns.
Time commuting is a daily routine, not a one-time event. Many time-zone shifters also travel to see clients. They are “permanently jet-lagged,” says Pamela Hinds, an associate professor of management science and engineering at Stanford who studies “globally distributed workforces.”
When Khanna travels, which he does at least 12 days a month, he never tells his U.S. clients where he is, fielding their calls throughout the night if he’s in Mumbai.
Khanna imagines a future in which communities are designed to accommodate a global time zone. Like at an airport hub, stores and services are always open. There is no assumption about what time zone anyone is living in. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails are available at all times.
“If you can get used to that state of mind, it’s freedom,” he says.
Yet Khanna hasn’t really tested his freedom. No midday golf game, for example. He might play, he says, if he could find a client who’s interested in joining him.
He does enjoy a pocket of time with his family in the late afternoons, when many people face hours more at the office and a long commute home. Sometimes, he and Ritu go to the gym or watch a television show recorded the previous night on their TiVo. “This is totally my time,” he says.
On this day, he picks up his 14-year-old son from a nearby Catholic high school at 2:30. They head home and shop for a computer online.
Spotting a machine they want, they head off to a Best Buy store in San Jose. Kanishka notes that he has to be back by 5:30 for his dog-walking job.
At Best Buy, father and son discuss the merits of a Sony laptop with a salesperson. They are interrupted by Khanna’s phone.
On the other end: the president of Khanna’s company, awake at 5:20 a.m. India time to catch an early flight.
“I’m at Best Buy,” Khanna says as he moves over to a low bench and sits down.
Kanishka sits down next to him and waits.