Whether we like it or not, the current pandemic is giving us a glimpse into the future of work. While not all changes may be great, the situation allows some experimentation with things outside of the established norm.
We have been advocates of asynchronous work principles at our own company since the beginning for several different reasons – not least because our product enables companies to make this move in new ways.
As we were observing this trend, we started looking more actively into this space and spoke to a few experts on the topic. Because we liked it so much, we wanted to share some of the things we have learned and provide some examples of progressive companies that are building tools to help manifest that trend.
What is asynchronous work?
Simply put, asynchronous means that something doesn't happen at the same time for everyone or in a pre-defined sequence. Asynchronous principles allow people to choose when to work on what, for how long, on how much of it – and from where. More on that later.
Many people hear asynchronous work and think of asynchronous communication. This is understandable since the first victims tend to be in meetings. Why is that? They are "the most expensive tool your company has", says Marcelo Lebre from remote.
And there are great examples of companies leading the way: GitLab hired a Head of Remote to refine their approach towards asynchronous work in an ongoing exercise. Or consider Yac, the company that makes audio messages work for companies and thereby pushes the philosophy forward. The company's founder and CMO, Hunter Moonshot (@huntermoonshot), brought light to an interesting aspect:
Meetings and calls are perishable by default and since few are being recorded, let alone transcribed, all information is lost – instantly. Asynchronous communication allows anyone to comprehend the full reasoning behind a given state or decision now and at any time in the future. Historical context is key.
The concept of asynchronous work, however, is not limited to communication alone. In our work, we like to think of it as asynchronous doing: ools like Shortcut (task coordination like JIRA, except that it's fun to use) or Notion (knowledge base, a Wiki with Emojis) make this doing quite enjoyable at our firm.
It's fair to say that asynchronous work allows teams to collaborate effectively across locations, time zones, skills, and each individuals' energy levels. Needless to say, empowering employees to work in a setting that fits them, leads to happy employees - and happy employees lead to happy customers.
Most things aren't urgent
Some things need to be handled promptly or in a clear sequence: Emergencies, building relationships, and casual events generally require personal and instant involvement. They are urgent and lose value or cause damage if we do not treat them as such.
But in today's office environments, most things on a normal day are not that urgent after all. They may be important and need to be done but they are not urgent. However, many people are still managing their business as if they were: Co-location as opposed to remote setups, and physical meetings, expecting immediate responses to emails regardless of the content.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to "update" their ways of working towards more flexible arrangements – not flexible as in "Here's your laptop, VPN, and Zoom login. Our standup is at 8 AM each day." but creating a work environment that focuses on getting things done, not physical presence.
We humans seem to enjoy being asynchronous
People are raving about asynchronous being the future normal, such as Sahil Lavigignia:
But why is this?
By moving towards asynchronous work, we are upgrading our work standards to private communication habits that have been around for a long time: Mailboxes, WhatsApp, voice messages, and even Instagram and Snapchat are proof that not everything needs to happen immediately for it to be considered good.
A study conducted as early as 2003 already focused on some of these issues in a setting with a high learning curve and pressure to deliver - and found that whether it is face-to-face or online setting, the highest success in work/life balance and goals followed those individuals who chose the setting that fit them - and not vice versa. Organizations need to become more flexible and agile, and not just on paper.
Whatever the causes, many people seem to value the freedom to choose when, how, and where to deal with something.
Work organized as feeds
In 1776, Adam Smith introduced the division of labor in his book The Wealth of Nations and it has led to unforeseen productivity gains ever since – for the world of production at least. While there is specialization among knowledge workers, multi-tasking exerts huge damage on companies.
Going asynchronous means that work can be organized as feeds and asynchronous principles play a significant part. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have organized their content as feeds: information is served in bite-size. Going asynchronous can do the same: By being able to choose when to deal with a topic, one can put maximum focus on the task at hand. All it needs is the right tool and an organizational mindset to support it.
To make this more practical, let's look at an example: A customer of ours, a microbiology lab, used to perform each analysis step in a given sequence – prepare a sample, analyze it, and record the findings – all day long. By digitizing the process, they were able to decouple all these steps and turn them into larger streaks of undivided attention: Prepare samples in the morning, switch on the automated scanner, and – while most findings are recorded automatically – handle the exceptions from anywhere.
Main benefits of asynchronous principles at work
As stated above, there remain situations where synchronous work must remain the norm. Also, there are some arguments against it, but they appear minor in comparison to the benefits:
- Productivity: Multitasking makes us feel productive but quite the opposite is true. To paraphrase the American Psychological Association: Our brains simply don't work that way. Instead, deliberate sprints of concentration lead to far better output.
- Historical context: A call, action, or meeting is perishable by nature and all information will be lost that doesn't get captured at the very moment. In contrast, asynchronous work thrives on information being preserved, be it in an email, chat message, or an image stored somewhere in the cloud.
- Motivation: You decide when you are motivated to do a job and not (let yourself) get interrupted by other people or things.
- Quality of communication: It gives everyone a chance to reflect before responding and communicating ideas in the right way.
- The best person for the job: Whether you are sending medical images to an expert in Denver or hiring a developer in New Zealand – asynchronous allows work to be distributed to those who are best suited to do it.
- Work/life balance: We live in very different times, and there are things to consider. Reliving the stress to be in meetings (which could probably have been an email...) all day, can empty up the mental space needed for high-value work tasks and reduce burnout.
Asynchronous work carries tangible benefits for modern organizations and shakes up done-and-dusted assumptions about how work has to look and feel. Companies can reap these benefits in many different ways – and finally get to Adam Smith's division of labor, in an office environment.
In any case, whether you are a hard supporter or opposer of asynchronous work, it is a conversation you should have with your staff - because true organizational fit does not come top-down.