How to master asynchronous work

Nicolas Cava
Nicolas Cava

Nicolas Cava

9 minutes read— Edited on Nov 4th, 2022
How to master asynchronous work
Picture by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu

In remote work, real-time collaboration results in negative impacts on productivity. It also generates stress and pressure, impacting well-being.

Employees experienced a 50% increase in collaboration over the past two decades. Disruptions are blasting productivity everywhere. Cognitive demanding activities like writing, coding, and strategy require the ability to focus for hours to get things done.

Did you know it costs you 23 minutes after a disruption to refocus on the task you were doing before?

We all have different energy types. Everyone has specific productive hours, often early morning or late night. Workers can also have specific conditions to live with, like a chronic illness. People also have different personalities within the extrovert and introvert spectrum. For example, introverts are most likely to energize from calm and solitude.

Collaborating with people in different time zones is challenging and sometimes unsustainable when done in real-time, especially with more considerable differences. The only way to make it work is to be awake late (or early) to collaborate, which is not viable, especially if it is a recurring constraint.

Also, when time zone difference is an issue, you are likely hiring in a limited geographic area.

When someone has a different schedule, even temporarily, it can quickly become challenging and disrupt operations.

Another issue of solving everything in real time is when employees spend time in meetings instead of producing value. Knowledge workers must organize days around meetings, draining their energy and limiting their options to focus on their projects. They also spend time in between working half-distractedly with one eye on Slack.

People fill their days with snacking or quick and low-value tasks to fill their limited time.

Because everyone is available to help you in real-time, there are fewer constraints on collaboration, leading to loose boundaries and unclear ownership across the organization. Knowledge is never documented, as an expert always lies around to help. However, when he leaves, the blasting radius of his departure is massive as the organization relies on tribal knowledge to operate.

People are encouraged to stay connected in real-time because they fear missing out on discussions and decisions. It drastically hurts well-being and productivity. One study found that we compensate for the time lost to interruptions by working faster, which increases stress, pressure, frustration, and effort.

Finally, people don't have time to think and provide complete responses in real-time. Replies must be quick to stay engaged in a conversation.

Asynchronous work is a new paradigm

A better alternative than real-time collaboration for remote work is asynchronous work. Asynchronous work is when collaboration is not done in real-time. Simply put, it is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response.

I'm deeply convinced remote work can't be dissociated from asynchronous work. Suppose you build or transform into a remote company. In that case, you must embrace it too, or you will start with a dysfunctional collaboration framework.

No rules on working hours

First, in asynchronous work, there are no rules on working hours. Employees have total control over their workday structure to fit their lifestyle, biorhythms, and responsibilities like childcare. This is a crucial contrast compared to real-time work.

Because of that, people learn to communicate more clearly and comprehensively to decrease back-and-forths as they become costly in this setting. Indeed, as they are no fixed working hours, you can't expect colleagues to be available when you are. Back-and-forths tend to be longer, so you must manage them well.

Cognitive-demanding work requires deep focus to produce efficiently. Asynchronous work enables people to block uninterrupted time to focus on delivering high-value outcomes. As you don't have to be always on, closing your chat window and concentrating on work for hours is fine. Furthermore, everyone has different productive hours. It can be early in the morning or later at night. This way, anyone can adapt working hours to their requirements.

However, in asynchronous work, you must be clear on collaboration rules. Because people are not constrained by fixed working hours or any office rule, it is crucial to be explicit about your expectations. Set a reasonable delay for a reply, like 24 hours, to accommodate everyone regardless of their time zone. Make sure also to set deadlines whenever you ask for something, even minor things. It will help your teams plan their workdays consequently. For example, you can decide to wait 24 hours for additional contributions, even if someone quickly approves your proposal.

Meetings are rare and well-organized

Even while working remotely, you may still have real-time meetings. Recording all meetings becomes vital for people who can't attend some (or all of them). Look for services like Rewatch to help with that. I also suggest you make them all optional unless you are a speaker or required to attend, not to make it worthless. Again, suppose you do not make them optional. In that case, you contradict the rule of flexible working hours, and employees will be obliged to structure their workdays around meetings, drastically reducing the benefits of asynchronous work.

However, do not record sensitive meetings or 1:1s. Even if it remains private, it creates an uncomfortable situation where people may be reluctant to share openly. There is close to no value in recording them anyway. As with everything, asynchronous work must find a balance.

Make sure to write notes during meetings or delegate them to someone else so you can focus on the facilitation. An efficient way is to create a Google Docs document and attach it to the event on your calendar. If the meeting is recurring, write into the same document to keep a history of the conversations and make it simpler to manage. You can quickly start a new section to write notes by using @meeting notes on top of your document and selecting the next occurrence. It will prefill some structure with the date and attendees.

A crucial point in asynchronous work is to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute. You can even do that for people who didn't attend a real-time meeting. Extend the conversation before and after the meeting using the same document for the notes. Before a meeting, write notes to pre-read at least 24 hours before and notify people to read them. It will help by setting the conversation topic so attendees can prepare accordingly. But also, people who will not attend can start contributing immediately. Make sure their voices are heard during the meeting too.

When the meeting is done, share the notes with everyone and list the action items. More importantly, wait for specific days (one week, for example) for additional contributions before closing the loop and making decisions. This way, people can still engage in the conversation and influence decisions without attending the meeting.

Everything has an identified owner

In remote work, every element of the organization must have an identified owner so people can orient themselves fast and know who to reach to ask for review and decisions. Be aware that shared ownership is not ownership. When something (not fun) must be done, not being explicit creates gaps that people unconsciously use not to take accountability.

One of the most crucial traits remote teams have is autonomy. In asynchronous work, you can't rely on experts to be always present to help. Employees have to be autonomous enough to progress on their tasks (or another one) without waiting for help. One way to provide autonomy is first to decentralize authority. By doing so, people will have the power to make decisions themselves when required.

What is not written doesn't exist

In the same registry as the previous point, having complete and quality documentation is crucial in making teams autonomous while working asynchronously. One of the most successful strategies for documentation is the handbook-first approach.

What is not written doesn't exist. The goal is to identify and document all the pieces of tribal knowledge your organization relies on. Then it would help if you assigned owners to all these pieces (again) so they stay up-to-date with time. Conversations and process iterations can also happen in the handbook directly. There is no better way to gain context on what you want to change and redirect traffic to the documentation so you get more chances to identify gaps. However, moving into a handbook-first strategy requires a significant cultural shift to succeed. Be prepared to have some pushback and arguments.

Documentation is also crucial when requesting something from colleagues. In asynchronous work, you'll need to send all upfront info once and not wait for back-and-forth to help out the scope of your demand. Feel free to write long and complete thoughts. It would be best if you achieved a high percentage of complete and accurate (%C/A) output for people to start working on your request as fast as possible.

Another efficient way to document knowledge is to use short videos. I love this format, but we need to rely on them more as we are not used to it. I recommend Loom for a straightforward method to centralize short videos. However, videos take more work to keep up to date. For example, they are better for sharing unidirectional messages to replace meetings or provide a product walkthrough in addition to a document.

People must unbelong from the old ways of work

One of the most complex parts of moving into asynchronous work is adapting to the company culture. As with every new work paradigm, asynchronous work requires a mindset shift. People must unbelong from the old work methods to see the value of asynchronous work. For example, asynchronous work is admittedly slower, but outcomes are of higher quality.

However, most people will shortly bound “slower” to “less productive.” But being fast is worthless if you are not working on the right things. Asynchronous work transforms your teams into surgical precision squads that go straight to where the value lies. So yes, they output less fast, but each iteration is highly impactful.

While working remotely, employees have way more freedom to organize their workday. But freedom is a burden without discipline. People must build a strong discipline and structure to thrive in remote work, and the organization must adapt. Make sure to support them in working healthy hours, taking regular breaks, and resting, especially when they don't feel in shape. Leave employees working whenever they want or feel as long as they stay aligned with business expectations and values. Finally, be very conscious of overworking. Plan and prioritize ruthlessly while listening to feedback to understand if you are pushing too much on your employees. Operating efficiently in this mode requires trust, discipline, autonomy, and accountability.

Communication practices also change in asynchronous work. Written communication becomes the main to collaborate and converse. Therefore, people must master it as a core skill to operate efficiently. Hire and train consequently. A significant benefit of written communication is that it generates natural documentation. You can search for discussions and refer to them. While it doesn't prevent you from adequately persisting knowledge in documents, it is better than nothing. Asynchronous work gives people time to think and reply with complete thoughts, bringing quality to conversations and leading to more significant outcomes.

Asynchronous work comes with massive benefits

As we saw, asynchronous work is a different work paradigm, doesn't fit with traditional ways of working, and brings new and significant benefits:

  • People win the freedom to work from and live anywhere. They have more options to find a location aligned with their lifestyle.
  • Workers can organize their day as they see fit without impacting company operations.
  • Companies can build teams that follow the sun, available 24/24 to help colleagues or support customers.
  • People can optimize their productive hours to deep work, which produces higher outcomes.
  • Default to written communication produces natural documentation, and people can provide complete thoughts before a reply.
  • Remote work and asynchronous work beat vanity perks any day and cost 0 to provide.
  • Employees don't feel FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) anymore as they know they don't need to be always on to follow conversations and participate in decisions.
  • Work finely with engineering as asynchronous work shines with knowledge work in general.

Asynchronous work by itself can 100% work for all knowledge work domains, not only engineering. There is nothing engineering-specific in asynchronous work. However, some jobs may need more meetings or real-time like sales.

Remote work implies asynchronous work

As we learned, asynchronous work is an entirely different paradigm of work. Trying to apply traditional work methods with remote work is a recipe for failure.

One of the most challenging areas is building the proper culture for people to accept asynchronous work. Still, once it is done and mastered, it unlocks massive benefits for teams.

Asynchronous work is undoubtedly stricter and brings more constraints. We have less chance of missing the point or wasting time. But not all rules are wrong, and these are particularly excellent. Stricter limitations teach us how to operate more precisely and lead us to more remarkable outcomes.

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