How to standardize on UTC to support remote work

Change how you think about time as part of your #workanywhere initiative: Move from headquarters-centric time zone language to the global standard, UTC.

Blue circle, with white arced line from top to bottom, with letters "UTC" in midsection of line. #1World1Time at bottom in orange letters. White background.

Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

Companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Electronic Arts announced that they intend to allow many employees to work from home permanently in response to COVID-19 containment efforts. As remote work increases, people will work from more places. 

To help ease the transition from site-specific to globally-distributed work, change how you communicate time. A message that mentions Pacific Time, for example, conveys a location-centric--and often legacy headquarters-centric--mindset. Stop describing time in local terms and start using the global standard: Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). References to Zulu time, indicated with a Z (e.g., 1339Z), also refer to the same standard.

UTC is the modern, 24-hour clock-based standard already in wide adoption in the aviation, military, and meteorology communities. In the technology world, many people set servers, firewalls, routers, and other network devices to UTC in an attempt to standardize event log times, synchronize systems, and simplify device management.

The use of UTC can reduce confusion around meeting times (e.g., "Wait, did you mean 8:00 your time or my time?"). UTC eliminates problems that result from an omitted "a.m." or "p.m." indicator, since the standard relies on a 24-hour clock (i.e., 8:00 always means earlier in a day than 20:00). UTC streamlines long lists of time zone alternatives: Instead of "Join the session at 10 am Pacific / Noon Central/1 pm Eastern" you might write "Join the session at 17:00 UTC".

UTC lets you concisely refer to a standard global time and date. Remember, the world has not just 24 time zones (some of which adjust seasonally), but several additional zones with partial-hour offsets. A shift to UTC within a global organization distributes responsibility for time calculations differently. For example, consider an organization with people who work in California, India, and China. 

If legacy headquarters time is described at 9:41 AM Pacific on May 28, that same time is 10:11 PM that same day in India, and 12:41 AM on May 29 in China. Put in UTC terms, the time is 16:41 UTC on May 28 (or, if you adopt date standards too, 2020-05-28). People in different regions can calculate current local times as needed: UTC +05:30 for India, UTC +08:00 for China, and UTC -07:00 in California (assuming daylight saving time).

The following sections cover how to display UTC, how to set Google Calendar to UTC, and how to change system settings to UTC.

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How to display UTC 

You may display UTC in the Clock app on mobile devices (Figure A).

Figure A

Screenshot of Android Clock app (left) display time 07:35 local, 13:35 UTC; screenshot of iOS Clock app (right) display time Albuquerque 07:32, Louisville 09:32, UTC 13:32.

The system Clock app on both Android (left) and iOS (right) can display current UTC along with any other time zones you choose.

On a current Android device, tap the Clock app, tap the Globe icon (bottom of the screen), then search for UTC and tap the UTC result. 

On a current iOS device, tap the Clock app, tap World Clock, then + (in the upper-right corner), search for UTC, then tap the UTC result.

On the web, you might add the GMT/UTC Clock extension in Chrome to display a UTC clock with other extensions in the upper-right portion of your browser. A web search for "UTC time" will return relevant results, as will a visit to time.gov, which includes a UTC clock (Figure B).

Figure B

b-webtimegov-utcextn.jpg

On the web, time.gov displays UTC (right side of browser). In Chrome, add the GMT/UTC Clock extension (upper-right corner, to the left of the three-vertical dot Chrome menu) to show a UTC clock.

How to set Google Calendar to UTC

You might choose to leave your device in local time, but adjust Google Calendar to UTC.

On the web, Google Calendar lets you display two time zones (Figure C). 

Figure C

Screenshot of Google Calendar, with UTC displayed next to Mountain time, and GMT 13:45 displayed below the month calendar.

Adjust settings in Google Calendar to display UTC in two places: 1) Next to local time, with hours listed to the left of Calendar events, and 2) Below the month, on the left side of the screen.

Go to calendar.google.com, sign in, then select the sprocket and choose Settings. Scroll to General | Time Zone, then check the box next to Display Secondary Time Zone. Select Coordinated Universal Time from the list. You may choose to make either UTC or your local time zone your primary time zone. Additionally, you may select the box next to Show World Clock, and select the Coordinated Universal Time option. This displays UTC below the month, on the left side of the Calendar page.

On Android (Figure D) and iOS devices, the Google Calendar app defaults to your device time zone. To adjust the app's time zone to UTC, tap the three-horizontal lines (in the upper-left corner), tap Settings | General, move the slider next to Use Device Time Zone off, then tap Time Zone. Type Iceland, then tap Greenwich Mean TIme. 

Note: Iceland remains consistent to UTC year-round, with no seasonal adjustments.

Figure D

Screenshot of Android Google Calendar app with "device time zone" off, and GMT Time zone selected.

The Google Calendar apps use the system time by default. Within the Google Calendar apps on both Android (shown) and iOS, you may choose a custom time zone instead.

How to set the system clock to UTC

If you decide to fully standardize on UTC, you may adjust the system clock setting on your devices to UTC.

To change to UTC on a standard Android device, tap Settings | System | Date & Time, then turn off the Use-Network Provided Time Zone option, tap the Time Zone and search for Iceland, then tap the back arrow in the upper-left. Enable the 24-hour format slider.

To change to UTC on an iOS device, tap Settings | General | Date & Time, then enable the 24-hour Time slider. Turn off the Set Automatically time option, tap the Time Zone and search for UTC, and tap the result (Figure E).

Figure E

Screenshots: (left) Android, (right) iOS, both with 24-hour format enabled, and custom Time zone set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Both Android (left) and iOS (right) let you turn off automatic time zone selection, enable 24-hour time, and select a custom time zone.

To change to UTC on Windows, go to Settings, select Time & Language, then Date & Time. Turn off the Set Time Zone Automatically option, then select (UTC) Coordinated Universal Time from the list (Figure F).

Figure F

Screenshot that displays Windows 10 Settings for Time set to UTC.

On Windows, you may turn off the option to Set Time Automatically, and set the system to (UTC) Coordinated Universal Time.

To change to UTC on macOS, choose the Apple Menu | System Preferences… then select the Date & Time icon, then select Time Zone. If necessary, click the lock in the lower-left area and enter an administrator account and password. Make sure Set Time Zone Automatically Using Current Location is not selected. Select any location in Iceland on the map (Figure G).

Figure G

Screenshot of macOS system preferences with Time Zone set to Iceland.

On macOS, adjust the time within System Preference to be any place in Iceland. Time in Iceland remains consistent with UTC year-round, with no seasonal adjustments.

To change to UTC on Chrome OS, select the Launcher, type Settings in the search box, then tap on the Settings app. Select the three-horizontal lines (in the upper-left), then choose Advanced | Date & Time, and select Time Zone. Make sure Choose From List is selected, then pick (UTC+0:00) Coordinated Universal Time (UTC/GMT) (GMT) from the list (Figure H).

Figure H

Screenshot of Chrome OS Date and time Settings, with Time zone set to UTC and 24-hour clock enabled.

On Chrome OS, you may set the system time to Coordinated Universal Time, as well as enable the use of a 24-hour clock.

Your thoughts?

If you work in an organization that embraces remote or distributed work, how do people in your organization communicate about time? Do people use headquarters-centric time zones--or has your organization chosen a global standard, such as UTC? If you're a system administrator, to what time zone are your server clocks set? Let me know either in the comments or on Twitter (@awolber).

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