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What is asynchronous work?
Discover just how much more productive—and happy—your employees can be when you give them the freedom to tackle their to-do lists on their own time
Posted August 11, 2022 by the Future Forum team
Reading time 8 min
One way to understand asynchronous work is to recognize its opposite.
When you’re working synchronously, you and your colleagues are focused on the same project at the same time, solving problems and answering questions as they arise.
Synchronous work will always be the best approach for certain objectives. But during the pandemic, many knowledge workers discovered just how productive—and perhaps, most importantly, how happy—they could be when they had more freedom to tackle their to-do lists on their own time. And our Pulse data shows just how unwilling your employees are to give up that freedom: today, 94% of global knowledge workers want flexibility in when they get their work done.
But that doesn’t mean every company is ready to make the shift.
The pandemic accelerated “the widespread adoption of remote work,” writes Steve Glaveski in Harvard Business Review. “But instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to improve how we work, most organizations simply took their offices online, along with the bad habits that permeated them.”
So how can your company avoid these bad habits, and what are the tools, processes, and autonomy your employees need to succeed on their own terms?
“The two behavior shifts we’re focused on the most are getting rid of unnecessary meetings and embracing asynchronous work,” says Alastair Simpson, Vice President of Design at Dropbox. “We believe implementing these two things makes the biggest difference for our employees based on our research to date.”
Asynchronous work, defined
We like Amy Rigby’s explanation over on the Trello blog: “Asynchronous, in short, is when work happens for different people on their own time.” But this doesn’t mean cutting your teams loose to float in an unstructured sea of tasks. Asynchronous workflows succeed when leaders set specific—and fairly high—standards of communication and documentation and when team members clarify and hold to expectations around shared goals and deadlines.
Benefits of asynchronous work
Working asynchronously counteracts the forces of burnout and boosts creativity by creating space for focused work, helping employees get unstuck from a loop of hyperresponsiveness.
It allows for easy collaboration across geography and time zones, so you can open your talent search to a wider pool and hire the best person for the job, no matter where they live.
It allows for nonlinear workdays, which have great potential to benefit the health and wellbeing of all employees, but are particularly beneficial to employees with caretaking responsibilities or health concerns.
Its reliance on visibility and documentation makes decisions easier to trace, serving as an archive of a project for current and future employees to reference.
It respects employees’ innate workstyle differences while empowering them with greater responsibility and autonomy. “We’re all wired differently,” says Alexa von Tobel, founder and managing partner of the venture firm Inspired Capital in Fortune. “Some people are morning people, some are night people. Some need quiet, some need energy. Now there is more of an opt-in, choose-your-own-work-style, rather than everyone having to sit in a bright office.”
When done right, it’s more efficient and productive than synchronous work, because colleagues aren’t puncturing each other’s concentration looking for shortcuts to information or breaking their stride to attend meetings throughout the day.
How to get started with asynchronous work
Context is key. A distinguishing feature of asynchronous teams is their reliance on longer, more thoughtful, and more composed written communication. When most of your colleagues are online at the same time, it’s easy—maybe too easy—to ping them with a sudden idea. If the people you’re working with don’t immediately understand the idea, they can just ask questions until you can get on the same page and work towards a solution. But on asynchronous teams, your colleague might be working a nonlinear schedule and heading out to pick up the kids from school when your inspiration strikes. (Or they might live halfway across the globe and be fast asleep.) So your message will need to provide context, anticipate possible questions, and propose next steps, including a due date. The idea is to clear as many obstacles as possible for your colleagues who will pick up the task later on (while you’re asleep).
Visibility: “If it’s not on [Platform of Choice], it doesn’t exist.” An Okta Business study found that people spend 36% of their days searching for information—and that they come up empty about half the time. But in an asynchronous environment, you can’t just ask around until you find what you need. That’s why visibility is a central tenet of asynchronous teams.
Asynch innovators steer their teams away from email, instant messaging, and meetings. Instead of calling a meeting to brainstorm, contributors can brainwrite on their own time. Instead of working through an issue over instant messaging, asynchronous teams use shared docs such as Google Suite. And documenting progress and blockers on a board like Basecamp, Asana, or Jira steers teams away from the need to keep up with fast-moving conversations over email or instant messaging.
Whatever platforms your team uses, it’s up to leadership to set clear expectations on communication and responsiveness and ensure all employees know what information goes where. (This is where team-level agreements can help.)
“Given our heavy reliance on Slack for daily communication, we have adopted detailed internal policies around channel structure and etiquette to enhance clarity and comprehension and set a professional tone appropriate for our culture,” reads the remote work playbook of Toptal, which describes itself as the world’s largest distributed company.
Consider core collaboration hours. “Asynchronous work is a simple concept,” writes Preston W. on remote.com. “Do as much as you can with what you have, document everything, transfer ownership of the project to the next person, then start working on something else.”
But at the same time “asynchronous work can feel taxing and inefficient if you’re only working on a single project and you’re stuck waiting for another person’s contribution,” writes Darren Murph at GitLab. So leaders need to support employees in structuring their workflows with enough time to let asynchronous responses come in, and with enough variety and volume that workers can always pivot to a new task while they wait.
To help employees unstick blockers as they arise, it can be helpful to adopt core collaboration hours—a pre-designated timespan when team members agree to be “live” and available to one another for synchronous collaboration.
At Automattic, the company behind WordPress, 1,300 employees are distributed across 76 countries, and every hire has worked remotely since the company’s founding in 2005, with no headquarters and no core work hours.
Automattic employees do use Slack for synchronous collaboration and hop on occasional Zoom calls (though they default to keeping meetings under the 15-minute mark). But the vast majority of their communication and collaboration takes place asynchronously on P2, an internal blog where posts are organized in streams. It’s similar to a Facebook thread, but it is searchable, taggable, and archivable.
“Conversations on P2s take place in-line, update in real time, and provide space for threaded replies,” writes CEO Matt Mullenweg on Distributed, the blog he started to share its perspective on the future of work. “We’ve stuck with P2 for years now, and it has ultimately evolved into a rich source of institutional wisdom and collective company memory.
Thanks in part to its 17 years of practice, Automattic currently sits near the top of his five-level model of distributed work autonomy, Mullenweg notes. He says asynchronous communication has empowered quieter employees and slower, more deliberate thinkers to play a role in big decisions and helped the company hire and retain the best talent and stay focused on results instead of inputs.
Toptal’s remote work playbook has a great example of how to layer team and company policies onto communication tools like Slack to keep employees across time zones and cultural backgrounds on the same page