Asynchronous Work, Not Just Asynchronous Communication
Working remotely for the first time? You might be hearing about how important it is to restructure your work habits in such a way that you stay 1) productive and 2) happy. Some of the good habits you formed in the office transfer directly, like taking regular breaks and staying hydrated. Others evolve – chatting over Slack instead of at the metaphorical water cooler. But in the shift away from co-location, we must consider the fundamental differences in doing good work on a remote team versus a co-located one.
I’m referring to the much-hyped asynchronous (“async”) work model that replaces the synchronous model from the office. Working asynchronously as a team – and not just communicating asynchronously – boosts productivity and happiness at the remote workplace. The entire system of work allocation, progress measurement, course correction, and celebration changes on a remote team – which of course includes async communication tools. How does the work get done? What tools and techniques are used to push initiatives forward, where are decisions made, where can you go to “get a handle on what’s going on”?
Here’s the gist: read and write, don’t tap and tell. Figure out how to move information out of the conference rooms and offices into the videos, paragraphs, and blurbs of modern, connected tooling. Allow for multiple time zones to participate. And don’t forget to have fun!
If you’re here for some quick points:
- Choose the right tools and use them well.
- Write everything down.
- Value time as the most precious resource.
Note: This post is based on my own experiences in the tech industry and is not a special guide to working remotely in the global pandemic, though maybe it can be helpful. Please be well, y’all. ✌️ 🦠
You’ll remember from physics that
work = force x distance. And the kind of work we do with our hands or minds is similar – it’s making
tangible steps toward a stated
goal. When that work is done on a team, we think about the concept of synchrony. How do the individuals on the team spend their time in relation to each other and the tasks at hand?
Synchronous work: at the same time, like a conversation.
Asynchronous work: at different times, like social media.
The important thing is eventually reaching the goal. It’s easy to understand why calendars get filled with meetings called “check in” or “sync” that make sure everyone is “on the same page” and has clear next steps. It’s progress measurement.
In the office, this tends to happen by gathering folks together in a conference room for time-spend. Can you believe some people are triple booked the whole day? I’ll spare you my whole soapbox on meetings; my point here is how bafflingly synchronous this work culture is, done year after year. And now that you’re remote, your calendar still stays booked, day after day, leading to “Zoom fatigue”. A calendar invitation for a 30 minute meeting of 5 people at noon means 5 people are agreeing to line up their priority stacks at noon, and as a group, take at least 150 minutes to accomplish the agenda, not including prep time. Those people are allocating a limited chunk of resources in a place of the meeting organizer’s choosing. Surely a meeting isn’t always required to move work forward? Could it have been an email or a post in your collaboration tools? Now imagine your home office, where your noon is different or busier than mine because of a time zone difference or personal obligation. That post replacing a meeting not only saved us all time but allowed us to work together in this new world of WFH.
Enter asynchronous work, where you don’t need to gather ‘round ye olde conference table for status checks or stand-ups or even planning sessions. A calendar invitation becomes a shared task list. Rapid fire emails become an agreeable due date and a thread of conversation you can chime into to when it suits you best. Half day team retrospectives with slide decks become thoughtful entries in modern tooling. Working together asynchronously doesn’t require working at the same time or even for the same amount of time. Reading is faster than writing, so the meeting organizer from before might instead put 30 minutes of work into a writing a succinct blurb to inform, persuade, or invite discussion. The would-be meeting attendees then contribute an appropriate amount of their time to addressing the post before the deadline. In my experience, the overall time spent is less than in a meeting, but the important part is the timing is variable for everyone involved 🙌.
To deepen understanding about remote, asynchronous work, we need to look at the communication methods available to us.
Walk with a coworker, chat over coffee, group meeting
Same time, same place.
No one in the conversation is spending less time or more time than the others. There is no fast forward button to the monologues, no skimming of what you already know. Everyone being in sync means it’s time-expensive but great for work like group brainstorming, riffing off one another, and sensitive conversations. Perhaps most importantly, it’s so good for socialization!
In-person conversations can take advantage of same time-space conveniences, like sharing the same atmosphere (e.g. a café) and tools (e.g. a whiteboard). Whether more or less formal than other types of conversation, they’re certainly more flexible and human. I think even fully distributed teams should find time to regularly bring the whole crew together for fun and camaraderie. And please, leave the computers at home.
Conversation cues are instantaneous and can be driven by any of the five senses. This is the default way of working for most people at the office, and it’s first thing you notice is missing when you go remote. “Let’s just hop on a video call instead”, you think… but careful, it’s not the same! Despite Apple’s branding for its video product FaceTime, digital verbal conversations are different in a few key ways.
Video chat, phone call
Same time, same (digital) place.
Like in-person conversations, digital conversations (e.g. over Zoom) take the same amount of time for everyone involved. But they bring people from different physical spaces into the same digital space. Because of that, digital conversations are deceptively different than the real thing. How easy is it to sneak off to another digital space (e.g. check email, notifications) and come back before anyone notices you’re gone? And then again when something else comes to mind, and probably again and again. You end up giving this time-expensive conversation only half your attention, and you feel like something is missing.
There are other subtle differences to the real thing. Talking heads find it hard to gesture and point to the same thing, so we have almost-equivalents like screen sharing. But is everyone actually looking at your screen if you share it? Are some people joining from their phone while others are on their computer? Another difference is that conversational micro pauses are harder to read because of the average quarter second internet latency, so it’s hard not to talk over one another. The one or two most assertive individuals tend to dominate team “discussions”. Next, the difficulties with the Mute button. If all microphones stay on, they inevitably pick up unwelcome background noise. But if all microphones stay off except the one person talking, you get the stadium effect. The speaker can’t hear the muted reactions, so it can feel like a bad standup set 😬. And finally, it can be eerie to have a long conversation and never once be able to make eye contact.
Digital verbal conversation cues are driven by sight and sound but are subject to all the limitations of being apart and delayed by internet latency and offset by camera/monitor spacing. You’re never quite making eye contact, never quite in real time, and never quite looking at the same thing. This is the new norm for many remote workers, especially in companies with a pervasive meeting culture.
Messaging, email, connected office suite, collaboration tools
Different time, same (digital) place.
Messaging tools have been commonplace for several decades, some recent variants including Slack, Microsoft Teams, and even Discord. Internet connection speeds and ubiquitous smart devices means you can also carry these tools in your pocket. They’re for short form text – fun like emoji, stickers, and GIFs – as much as serious business like deploying software applications through chatops. These tools all have helpful indicators for online/offline 🟢⚪️ and even timezone 💤, so you can set your expectations accordingly when chatting with a teammate. The unspoken expectation is a reasonably short response time if you are online.
Email is… still email.
With a modern, connected suite of office tools like Microsoft Office, people can work on the same resource at the same time or long after the others have called it a day. I still think it’s magic to watch cursors flying around a shared document simultaneously.
Collaboration tools like Notion, GitHub, and Trello are also in this digital written category. My team at GitHub uses GitHub itself for collaboration, where we ideate, form lists, track initiatives, assign responsibility, and make decisions. I don’t have to be online at the same time as my colleagues, though I often am. We work on our tasks as well as we can, write a summary or present work directly in a shared feedback area, along with intended next steps or blockers; rise and repeat. Theoretically, this way we’re not measured on presence at our desks but on the quality of our work 🤩. I can take the time I need in the physical space I have. I treat my teammates’ time like a resource I may ask for instead of a commodity that keeps the work wheel turning. We are in sync in the sense of shared purpose and responsibility, but importantly not in sync in relation to each other’s time. We also regularly have video chats about the topics that need more synchrony, and semi-regularly gather in person! 🎳
So to sum up the ends of the spectrum, we have:
- Default mode for co-located teams
- Primary communication is in-person, supported by digital written
- Good for brainstorming and conversations requiring personal touch
- Not good at allowing individual freedom and mobility
- Meetings are common
- Amount of time spent tends to be rewarded
- Custom built by remote teams
- Primary communication is digital written, supported by digital verbal and even occasionally, in-person
- Good for everything else in the tech industry 😄
- Meetings are a fallback
- Results tend to be rewarded
Some assembly required
I’ve worked on good and bad teams, sync and async. There is no silver bullet to this stuff – going remote doesn’t mean it’s automatically asynchronous, and working well asynchronously doesn’t mean there aren’t significant challenges to overcome. I believe that any team’s success working together is directly proportional to its ability to use its tools effectively. The craftsperson is no better than their tools, right? So when an organization used to working together in a big office building suddenly finds itself scattered, it’s time reconsider how it does its work.
Here is my list of tips for excelling at asynchronous work, expanded from the list at the top of this post.
1. Choose the right tools and use them well
Make sure your remote organization has secure, flexible digital tools that allow teams to converse in several ways. Standardize the “80% usage” of these tools, both leading by example and by written guidance, but leave the remaining 20% up to each team.
In case it wasn’t clear before, I’m a huge fan of in-person time when done the right way. This too can be a tool for getting work done. Ensure the organization or at least all teams can get together in person – say, yearly – to do what just isn’t easy remotely.
2. Write everything down
Reading is faster than writing, so by writing down your decision making process, your results, and your rationale – you save time now and give insight to a wider future audience. Where to make this writing available is up your tools – I of course use GitHub, but it might be a team post, a Jira ticket, or if all else is lost, an email 😄.
My colleague Ben Balter says it best in his post, “Why everything should have a URL” 👀.
3. Value time as the most precious resource
Treating synchronous time as a limited resource will help your team immensely. Some orientation questions to ask yourself before setting up a meeting or digitally tapping your coworker:
- Is it important?
- Is it important now?
- Will it be need to be referred to in the future?
- Can it be written or recorded instead of said?
Some tips to protect your own time:
- Batch similar tasks.
- Your inbox is not your task manager! If your notification (inbox, unread count…) queue fills up fast, leave on “Do Not Disturb” mode and set a twice daily reminder to Do/Drop/Delegate/Defer.
- Give video meetings your complete presence. If your coworkers respect your time as we’ve presented here, they’ll only book a meeting as a backup. They are worth your undivided attention in return.
This has been about asynchronous work, but my final tip is about the rest of your life. Use your newly found extra time for family, friends, hobbies, and what you find important!