In a world dominated by deadlines and strict schedules, it comes as no surprise that asynchronous work is not the norm. However, with the world battling from the pandemic for the past year, remote work is no longer a choice. It is a necessity. Companies are finding themselves embracing remote work and looking for ways to empower their employees while still promoting a sense of collaboration amongst them, even from the comfort of their homes.
According to a peer-reviewed study conducted in August 2020, nearly 90% of the employees who worked from home during the lockdown wanted to continue doing so, at least for the near future.
This was attributed to the freedom and a sense of control that remote work lets people enjoy. They have more time to dedicate to their loved ones while also being allowed more productivity due to decreased time-constraints. All of these factors are a byproduct of an asynchronous working environment.
Asynchronous work is often seen as the holy grail towards creating scalable and efficient remote teams, but what does that mean, and why is it so crucial?
Let’s take a look.
What is Asynchronous Working?
Asynchronous working allows employees to collaborate and complete their tasks on their own schedule. Unlike synchronous working where workers are expected to be in touch with their colleagues and managers throughout their shift, async work gives employees the freedom to respond when they are at their best.
Instead of being constantly available for interruption on using instant messaging tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, you can use async tools like Yammer, Basecamp, or Notion to communicate, make in-app comments or collaborate on projects with your remote colleagues. You can also leave feedback on documents using Google Docs, instead of sending different file versions through email.
Apps that allow you to create written-down content and documentation – think: Confluence, Basecamp, Trello - are also great examples of async work in action. Documentation, after all, allows companies to reduce ambiguity in communication and reduces unnecessary back and forths by providing a single source of truth remote workers can refer to.
Asynchronous work focuses on providing the employee with the freedom to structure work-related tasks according to their own timetable, which may be different to that of their colleagues.
After all, remote teams may involve people working from all over the globe. If there are many colleagues in different time zones who need to take part in a video call over Zoom, this can easily become a problem because this would require them all to be available at exactly the same time for the video call.
Existing in drastically different circumstances and time zones would mean some colleagues will have to work outside of regular working hours and put in additional effort.
This is where an asynchronous approach can come in handy.
Instead of holding a live video call, your team can use Loom or Yac to screen record and screen share asynchronously. Messages can be recorded and posted with users allowed to add comments to these videos. This eliminates the need for live calls.
Benefits of Asynchronous Working
Asynchronous working requires some forethought and planning. It provides a much more relaxed and inclusive approach to working as opposed to synchronous working which requires rapid-fire responses.
Here are a few key advantages of async working:
- More control for employees. Async working provides workers with the freedom to structure their schedules according to what suits them best. They no longer have to stay on top of every message and provide real-time responses, for example, in a Slack chatroom. Instead, they can opt for Twist’s laid-back communication platform and reply when convenient. This gives them more control over their day and how they choose to spend it while also providing their best work.
- It reduces stress. Since you are not required to reply swiftly, asynchronous working provides you with the option to plan and prepare in advance. For example, your development team can easily edit and run code asynchronously on GitHub, providing the necessary comments and insights, according to their own schedule.This leads to a stress-free work environment and better teamwork.
- It results in high quality discussions. Async communications allows for a more quality driven conversation. Since people are in no rush to respond, they communicate more clearly, avoiding unnecessary back-and-forths.
- Minimized distractions means more meaningful work is produced. Async working provides ample opportunity for people to work completely uninterrupted. From something as simple as email to digital whiteboards such as Miro or Mural, employees can bounce back and reply to messages at their own pace during the day.
- Inclusivity is achieved. Asynchronous working provides the flexibility needed for people from differing circumstances to successfully collaborate. An employee residing in South Asia would not be at a disadvantage relative to their colleagues in Europe due to timing differences. A person with familial responsibilities would not have to overwork themselves, enabling them to be on equal footing as their other team members.
For employers, this would mean that they don’t have to limit their hiring pool only to a certain time zone, paving the way for a diverse workplace.
Asynchronous Vs Synchronous Communication
Falling under this type of work, asynchronous or async communication, then, describes all forms of communication that do not have the need for many different parties to be available at the same time. Think of email, instead of using Slack for communicating.
Synchronous communication, on the other hand, is when you respond to the information received immediately without delay. As we have already highlighted in the previous section, while synchronous communication may allow people to interact at the same time, it can be disruptive to remote employees’ working patterns.
While synchronous communication may be the norm within an office environment, a company that wants to transition to remote work must allow its remote workers to have a say on how they want communication to happen between their teams.
Like it or not, many excellent remote-first companies run on asynchronous communication. The reason for that is simple: Flexibility, availability, and time zones.
When working remotely, you can never be sure whether a person is available, busy or out of "office". If you're relying on quick instant messages, chances are that you're getting disappointed. With team members in other time zones, it can also feel predatory to send messages through a medium that expects instant replies.
Moreover, instant messaging, as well as calls and other synchronous ways of communication distract you from the work at hand and break focus. Not being able to focus your attention fully on your work means a constant workflow is not achieved, leading to lower productivity.
Asynchronous communication is optimal in these cases as it shields everyone’s time and attention by reducing unnecessary distractions. Being able to set time aside every hour to go through messaging promotes healthier and more meaningful work.
Existing Problems with Synchronous Communication
To strive for an asynchronous working environment that functions successfully, we need to understand where synchronous work is lacking. Let’s take a look at the existing problems associated with synchronous work.
- It prioritizes communication over productivity. Synchronous communication is heavy on staying connected. Here, you are expected to be available at all times during the day. In a team group chat with over 10, 50, or even 100 employees, this could mean you could possibly miss out on important information just because you weren’t available within a certain timeframe.
- It serves as a constant source of distraction for employees. Constantly receiving instant messages and being required to reply to them as soon as humanly possible proves to be a consistent source of distraction. These interruptions hinder everyone’s ability to produce good-quality work.
- It promotes overworking and increases work-related stress. Being constantly available translates to working 24/7 with no downtime. Employees, especially those with parental and spousal responsibilities, fail to find a work-life balance, resulting in increased levels of stress that can often lead to burnout.
- It leads to poor quality discussions. A need to respond instantaneously means people don’t have time to think through an issue clearly. Their responses are rushed with no particular meaningful insight embedded in them. This leads to poor quality of discussions, where not very many effective solutions are presented. People are merely responding for the sake of participation.
How Can I and My Team Make Async Work?
From adopting different tools and processes to cultivating a new culture and environment, making the switch from sync to async takes time.
Here is how you can get started, both as a team member and a team leader:
Async as a Team Leader or Employer
- Focus on transparency amongst team members. Most discussions should happen publicly or on record, making sure people do not miss crucial information.
- Promote writing and long-form messages. Explain situations in detail to a point where there are no pressing questions open. Encourage people to re-read messages a few times or even use a grammar app. There should be as much written-down information as possible. It helps!
- Encourage a documentation-first approach. This involves documenting your processes and best practices for everyone to read and refer back to in case they have questions. Tools like Notion or Basecamp facilitate this process.
- Promote async communication. For day-to-day communication, you should choose async mediums like emails or tools that allow your teams to communicate at different times.
- Avoid excessive back and forth. If a discussion takes a few back-and-forths, it is no longer suitable for async. Fork out to a video call or similar.
- Take on a Direct Responsible Individual (DRI) framework. It is a good idea to assign a person in charge to each discussion, and make sure that it doesn’t die or get forgotten.
Async as a Team Member
- Write! Include as much information as you can in a message, even using visual imagery to get your point across even more clearly.
- Turn off notifications. Set specific times throughout the day where you check on your messages and emails.
- Be productive. While you wait for a team member’s response, use the time available to your favor and focus on work.
- Document everything. From the beginning till the completion of a project, document every single detail. This helps people who weren’t present in the moment or for future purposes.
- Plan ahead. Structure your work schedule a couple of days in advance to avoid falling back on the synchronous method of working.
- Before a meeting, share all relevant information. Ensure everyone is well-aware of the hows and whys of the topic at hand before the meeting.
- Using Employee Handbooks
An employee handbook is an information manual that lists the company’s vision, culture, rules and regulations, and much more. It is what a fresh, or even an old, employee would want to get familiarized with, especially in terms of remote working.
In general, your employee handbook should cover the following topics in thorough detail:
- Mission statement
- Legal policies
- Company culture
- Employer and employee expectations
- Other company policies, case studies, or documents detailing social responsibilities
How you design a handbook depends largely on your specific organization. You can follow in GitLab’s footsteps and make an incredibly thorough and interactive handbook. Or, if you prefer things to the point, Basecamp’s employee handbook could serve as the perfect example. In general, we recommend that every company transitioning to remote work create a handbook that includes all their processes, operations and best practices. A handbook can be an excellent reference for newly on boarded employees and allow existing ones to document what has worked well in the past.
Automated onboarding minimizes work and fast-forwards the employee adaptation task, ensuring that an employee starts working on a team as soon as possible. Employers can provide new hires with the necessary training and knowledge, which they can then refer back to in the future whenever needed.
You can use a to-do list through Todoist or utilize tools like Slack’s Donut to assign tasks to new hires and let them explore things on their own. Additionally, identity management softwares, such as Okta, can be used to add a new employee’s personal information in your company’s database and quickly set up authentication and authorization without extended waiting periods.
Why We Need Both Asynchronous and Synchronous Working
At the end of the day, async and synchronous working need to go hand in hand as both of them carry pros and cons.
While it is great that async tools provide us a way to avoid the long and tedious face-to-face meetings, it also means that we are missing out on a certain human connection that technology cannot bridge. It is important that team members have a sense of a personal connection.
Holding the conventional meeting every now and then can serve as a nice energy boost for employees and could further their collaboration efforts.
For example, your company can hold 1 face-to-face meeting in a month instead of 5. This will allow you to mix in synchronous working where it matters. At the same time, async working would not have to take a backseat.
When Should I Choose Asynchronous or Synchronous Communication?
Switching it up and choosing synchronous communication would be particularly great in situations where you need to:
- Build rapport and personal connection
- Hold a team/workplace retreat
- Put your heads together and brainstorm ideas
- Discuss a topic with a lot of moving variables
- Discuss sensitive topics
- Address emergency situations
Similarly, it would make sense to choose async communication when:
- You don’t require immediate feedback.
- You need to communicate with multiple people who are not available in the same place at a specific time.
- You want to provide context before a meeting or event.
- You want a person to complete a project at their own pace.
- You need to collaborate with someone in a different time zone.
- You need to provide documentation that people can go back to for future reference.
The goal of picking an async form of communication is not to replace sync working, but rather optimize it to make remote workplaces more efficient. With remote work’s increasing popularity, companies will have to find a balance between sync and async working methods and discern what to adopt where in a remote environment.