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COLUMN ONE

Working around the clock

When business expands globally, U.S.-based workers' schedules do too. A call at 5 a.m. must be India clocking out. Or is it Chile waking up?

June 19, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

Los Gatos, Calif. — 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.

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