How and Why to Implement Asynchronous Work in a Remote-First Workplace
Nowadays, more people are working from home than ever before. Companies can now hire remote software developers from all corners of the world to solve the talent shortage problem.
This poses new challenges, however. Many companies fall into the trap of trying to replicate the physical office in a remote environment. This is counterproductive and simply not possible.
But remote work opens up the opportunity for adopting new ways of working that come with their own benefits. Asynchronous work is one such way.
So, what is asynchronous work? Simply put, it is working without being constrained by time. This means that work can be done at any time, regardless of the location or time zone of the worker.
It also means that workers can have uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on their work, without having to worry about interruptions from others.
Async work is ideally suited for remote teams, as it removes the need to be synchronous. This makes it possible for team members to work around their own schedules.
But when should we use asynchronous work, what are its benefits, and how can we go about implementing it in our own remote teams?
Synchronous and asynchronous work
The traditional way of working is synchronous. This means that everyone works at the same time, in the same place. It's been the dominant mode of work for centuries and it's still used in many offices today.
This type of work has its place in a remote-first environment too. Team meetings to build a rapport, planning meetings to hash out a complex project, or sensitive feedback sessions are best held synchronously.
But, trying to maintain primarily synchronous modes of working in a remote-first environment will likely come with disadvantages and stumbling blocks. For one, it can be difficult to coordinate people who are in different time zones. This is because everyone needs to be available at the same time in order to work together.
It can also be hard to focus when you're constantly being interrupted by others. In a synchronous environment, it's easy for people to get distracted by things like social media, email, and instant messaging.
Asynchronous working is a way for people to work when it suits them and how it suits them.
The benefits of asynchronous work
Asynchronous working comes with several benefits for remote teams.
Staff will have the opportunity to complete tasks when it works best for them. Even if your staff is based in the same time zone, this provides flexibility for workers.
This is more important than you think. Working 9-5 has been shown to disproportionately affect women with children and members of underrepresented communities who often juggle multiple chores on top of their full-time jobs. Asynchronous work is key to creating a more equitable workplace where people can fit their work around their lives.
And it’s even more essential if your staff is based in different time zones. It ensures people don’t feel excluded or unable to perform their duties because synchronous discussions happen while they’re asleep.
Another benefit is increased productivity. Because workers can work uninterrupted, they are able to be more focused and get more done.
A University of California study found that each interruption saps people’s focus. It takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task when someone is asked an unrelated question, sees an urgent message, or is otherwise interrupted.
This is especially beneficial for knowledge workers who need time to think and process information, such as remote software developers for example.
Synchronous work also relies heavily on meetings to impart information. But Zoom fatigue is real and has the potential to overwhelm and exhaust workers, making them less focused and more prone to making mistakes and delivering poor quality work.
Asynchronous work champions replacing most meetings in favor of meaningful and thoughtful communication, including project discussions and planning recorded via collaborative tools.
Implementing asynchronous work in a remote-first environment
Implementing asynchronous work will bring many benefits to your remote-first team. But how do you go about introducing it? And what should you keep in mind?
Set clear expectations
Just because you’re adopting asynchronous working doesn’t mean you should throw all deadlines and expectations out the window.
People still need to know when work is due. They need to understand what is expected of them.
But it’s more than that.
For instance, there need to be clear guidelines about timelines. How long after receiving an email or message is a worker expected to respond? In 24 hours? Perhaps 48? This depends on your line of work.
Organizations need to decide to what extent they’d like to implement asynchronous work. For instance, is it a fully asynchronous organization with few meetings only in exceptional circumstances?
Or, does it make sense to have some core hours when everyone is available for requests and meetings? Your approach will depend on your organization.
There are other conventions to consider as well.
In some organizations, workers acknowledge requests when they see them so the sender is aware it’s been received. On Slack, this can be done with a simple emoji, for instance.
Another good idea is to ask your employees to indicate when they are online and when they are working on focused tasks and won’t be responding to queries. This could be done by having them block time off in their diary, or having them drop a message in Slack to indicate that they are available.
Whatever conventions or rules you put in place, make sure you communicate them to your staff clearly, whether that’s through a widely circulated email, a Google Docs rule book, or a dedicated Slack channel for async resources.
Asynchronous work means your staff might not be online at the same time. If meetings were your primary form of hashing out issues, you’ll need to have a complete overhaul of your system.
That’s not to say you should do away with meetings altogether.
But, to borrow the popular adage, most meetings can be an email. That is, the information can be communicated via an asynchronous method of your choice.
That might be email, Slack, Nuclino, or Google Drive.
The team might feel apprehensive at first about switching to text-based or asynchronous communication. But, once again, being really clear on what meetings will become emails, and why, will help assuage any fears.
So, what meetings can become emails? Here’s a non-exhaustive list to consider:
- Any daily stand-up meetings that are for information only, i.e. meetings where team members rattle off status updates or what they’re working on.
- Any simple feedback sessions, where the feedback is to the point and easily fixable.
- Some project planning sessions where team members could benefit from reading the information, reflecting on it, and then providing their thoughts.
Asynchronous project planning
You might be apprehensive about switching to asynchronous project planning when video calls have worked well in the past.
But did you know that project meetings where people are expected to speak up tend to favor feedback from the loudest members of the group? And while they shout the loudest, they don’t always have the best ideas.
In fact, a popular technique to ensure quieter team members have the opportunity to shine is to pose a discussion question at the start of a meeting and allow five minutes for silent reflection, where staff write down their thoughts and then raise them during the meeting.
With asynchronous communication, you’re allowing all staff members the reflection time they need to think about a problem that needs solving or an aspect of a project and then put their thoughts down on paper. This allows all your staff to contribute and not just your loudest team members.
With asynchronous work, overcommunication is key. There simply isn’t scope for the same back-and-forth that would occur in a synchronous environment. You can’t just ask a quick question and get a response in five minutes. You can’t just jump on a quick call to hash out an issue.
If someone is left wondering what you meant, they’ll have to message you. But, if you’re asleep when they message you, they’ll have to wait hours to hear back. Then, if you have a follow-up question, you’ll need to wait hours again for a response. What is a simple back-and-forth in a synchronous environment, can take days in an asynchronous workplace.
That just means you need to train yourself and your employees to always over communicate. Here are a few ways you can do this:
- Get in the habit of stating the obvious. Or what seems obvious to you. This isn’t patronizing, but it ensures the message gets across.
- Be specific. You want a piece of work delivered? Provide a clear brief explaining the scope of work required and exactly when you’d like to receive it.
- Give context. Explain the reasoning behind your query or request. This allows people to factor that in before they get started or ask additional questions.
- Include images. If you want to illustrate an issue, send a screenshot. Send several screenshots if necessary and annotate them.
Overcommunication also promotes accountability and transparency. This builds trust in a remote, asynchronous environment.
For instance, you might replace stand-up meetings with a progress update Slack channel where everyone says what they're working on currently when they log in. At the end of the day, they could provide an additional progress update saying where they got up to and what they struggled with.
This not only allows you to see an overview of what everyone is doing, but it allows other team members to pick up where the other person left off.
Measure outcomes not hours
Asynchronous, remote work environments make it impossible to count the exact hours your employee spends at their desk.
They might do a morning session, step away for most of the afternoon, and then work in the evening after they’ve put their kids to bed. They might be in a different time zone, working while you’re asleep.
You can’t keep time. In fact, it’s counterproductive and leads to busywork and micromanagement. So what do you do instead?
Outcomes directly impact business’ goals. They help move the business forward. They’re a lot better than busywork which serves no purpose other than staying busy.
Busywork might be re-organizing your inbox for the fifth time this week. You’re interacting with company materials but you’re not contributing anything meaningful.
An outcome-driven task might be producing a project outline or creating a report measuring the success of a particular project, and then carrying over these learnings to future projects.
So how do you measure outcomes? Here are a few ways:
- Stop micromanaging. You don’t have to check in every hour. You don’t have to see unfinished drafts or works in progress. Trust people to deliver their work when they said they would.
- Talk to your employees before setting tasks. Make sure they have the time, resources, and training to accomplish them. If not, rectify this.
- Check work is delivered on time and up to scratch. If not, provide actionable and effective feedback.
If you’re interested in learning more about measuring outputs rather than hours, we have a detailed article with more guidance here.
Provide asynchronous feedback through video
Asynchronous feedback can be an effective way to provide guidance without having to get the whole team to attend a meeting at a specific time. This is especially helpful if you have a distributed team based across several time zones.
While feedback can be provided via text form, be it in the form of comments on a Google Doc, or emails to the whole group, video feedback is also possible.
You could pre-record a video and share it with everyone. This could provide detailed feedback and improvement suggestions that would take too long to type out. It also allows you to share a screen and show people exactly what you mean by your comments.
Your video feedback can be stored and accessed by all team members working on a particular project when it suits them.
This way, your team remains time zone neutral and you’re not excluding anybody by hosting a feedback session when some team members can’t make it. But also, the recording remains on your system indefinitely so people can refer to it frequently and make adjustments to their work as necessary.
Asynchronous work in a remote environment
There are many benefits that come with asynchronous work. It’s time zone neutral, and it provides flexibility and uninterrupted blocks of time to focus. Async working is ideally suited to remote teams, as it removes the need to be online at the same time.
If you’re looking to implement async work in your organization, start by creating guidelines specifying how timelines will work. Make sure you’re clear about time scales when you assign tasks to allow people to prioritize their workload. Implement processes to ensure people have received a task and understand it, but don't fall into the trap of micromanaging.
You should also focus on communicating effectively and transparently with your team. Overcommunicate and make sure everyone is on the same page. Finally, focus on outcomes rather than hours worked. As long as the work is getting done on time, it doesn’t matter when or how it’s done.
Shifting from synchronous to asynchronous work in your organization can be a challenge. But implementing asynchronous work successfully could do wonders for your team’s morale and productivity.
ReadyTal connects companies with the best remote software developers around the world. Our candidates come from more than 60 countries and have passed robust language and technical assessments. If you’re looking for talent, get started here.