What the buzz? Volume 1: Asynchronous Work

Ghina Fahs
January 5, 2023
What the buzz? Volume 1: Asynchronous Work
Employee experience

We’ll then take a deep dive into it and come back to you with everything you need to know to stay up to date.

Buzz it, let’s get started!

This month, we’ve selected the term asynchronous work: a flexible method of work in which individuals are not tied to a specific location or schedule. Think of it as “out of sync” when it comes to working hours. Although some companies were doing it before COVID – for example, those with multiple offices in different timezones, or progressive tech startups that worked unconventionally before it became “a thing” – the use (and application) of this term proliferated quite rapidly during and after the pandemic.

When everyone in the world had to quarantine, companies were pushed to work entirely differently to survive the global crisis. Because of that, many people realized that they work much better under flexible, remote, and async working conditions. People saw significant improvements in their work-life balance and mental health, and most employees not only started to demand it, but they were also willing to resign and go elsewhere in search of it.

Defining the word: Asynchronous

The word asynchronous combines the Greek-based prefix a-, meaning “without, not,” and synchronous, meaning “occurring at the same time”—basically, it just means “not existing or occurring at the same time.” Yes, it’s that simple.

In the context of work, asynchronous describes a format in which employees can work independently, with the freedom to tackle their tasks on their own schedules. Meetings are minimized, and employees aren’t expected to be “online” or at the office at specific rigid hours.

Open communication and collaborative tools are necessary to maintain efficiency and harmony, of course, but people still get autonomy over how they balance their work lives with their personal lives. In short, they can complete their tasks whenever they like, wherever they like (including the office, if that’s their thing). As long as deliverables are being met and everyone has access to the information needed, the “hows” are up to them.

It’s the opposite of what the world was more accustomed to in the pre-COVID work world, which was synchronous work. When colleagues are working synchronously, they’re usually focused on the same project at the same time, solving problems and answering questions as they arise in real-time, during traditional office or “online” hours.

What asynchronous work is

  • Everyone gets the freedom to choose where to do their work, having the option of remote, hybrid, or on-site (if there is an office space).
  • Employers establish a culture of trust and support, where the async flexibility is not only a promise of words but also a method of action.
  • People are encouraged—or taught how—to communicate effectively and clearly, especially through writing.
  • Instant messaging is replaced with async-friendly communication tools such as Twist.
  • Meetings are minimized to avoid disrupting individual flow and win more time for purposeful work. If the in-person meeting can be a call. If the call can be an e-mail. If the email can be a Slack message—you get the idea.
  • People get to design their work schedules in the way that suits them best. If they prefer to get their work done in the evenings, that should be up to them, as long as they can manage their tasks and complete their deliverables on time.
  • Acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each individual has access to a central, searchable knowledge base—this can be a shared drive or a platform like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Bloomfire—where any and all information, documents, and resources they might need can be found.
  • Employees are trained to document, record, organize and store important files and information. Make this easier by using templates or trying documentation tools such as I Done This.
  • Smooth collaboration makes teamwork easy and effective because living documents and collaboration tools such as Basecamp, Notion, Asana or Canva are utilized.

What asynchronous work isn’t

  • The expectation for team members to respond to messages and e-mails on the spot.
  • Using flexibility and asynchronous work to attract talent during interviews but then not following through with real implementation.
  • Dismissal of deadlines, unreasonably long response times, or creating a bottleneck in workflows or project timelines. 
  • Blurred boundaries between work and personal life, which is unhealthy and leads employees to struggle with not knowing where one ends and the other begins.
  • Remaining online and responsive just to “show” that one is working—a very real and common habit known as digital presenteeism.
  • Expecting people to work more to make up for not being monitored at an office or within rigid working hours.
  • Avoiding collaboration or in-person / video meetings altogether, leaving room for miscommunication, misalignment, and lack of team connectivity.
  • Disregarding the importance of team-building and healthy work relationships.

When it works

When implemented successfully, everyone wins! Here are some of the benefits of a healthy asynchronous work culture:

  • Work-life balance will become a priority, significantly increasing employee satisfaction and wellbeing.
  • Less interruption of workflows will result in more productivity and efficiency.
  • With more privacy and control over how they get their tasks done, employees will feel a rewarding and empowering sense of responsibility, increased creativity, reliability, and self-confidence.
  • Companies will attract and hire remotely from a wider talent pool, with geographic barriers no longer being an issue.
  • When diversity and individual differences in workstyle are respected, employees will feel trusted and appreciated, and their work will come from a more genuine and intentional place.
  • Employee retention can be at an all-time high. Attracting and retaining the best talents will be easier.
  • When work is well-documented and effective communication strategies are put into place, a culture of trust and transparency is cultivated.

When it doesn’t

Without proper planning, coordination, and organization, managing an async workforce can have its challenges. Here’s how to tell when “asynchronous work” is not being executed effectively, or not really asynchronous at all:

  • Employees have a hard time knowing when to unplug. Working with no structure can easily turn into working continuously throughout the day. That's why managers need to pay special attention to ensuring their team members disconnect from work often enough.
  • Async privilege: when employees in more senior roles are comfortable with working asynchronously, while their junior colleagues still feel unable to let go of the rigidity of a certain dictated work schedule.
  • Misunderstandings arise and wreak havoc when no clear communication strategies are put in place.
  • Employees feel pressured to be online at the same time as their colleagues to prove that they’re working. Sometimes even if managers aren’t actually placing any pressure on their people, individuals might pressure themselves (perhaps out of fear or being conditioned from past experiences).
  • Workflows get messy due to a lack of documentation and collaboration.

But transparent communication, strategic collaboration and a culture of documentation can help teams avoid these common pitfalls.

To conclude

The data speaks for itself: asynchronous work is what most of today’s workforce is looking for. A whopping 94% of global knowledge workers want flexibility in when they get their work done, and 60% of millennial workers selected flexible work options as their top priority—even over financial compensation. 

Employers, however, need to catch up. Here are some points to reflect on: while three in five (61%) employees agree that asynchronous work would create a better work-life balance, the majority (58%) don’t believe their company has the tools needed to enable asynchronous work. Additionally, over half (55%) don’t believe their employer would trust them to work the hours that suit them best, even under the provision of delivering results and meeting deadlines.

The key takeaway here is that before switching to an asynchronous workforce, employers will need, first and foremost, to believe in its benefits and effectiveness. After that, they’ll need to charge themselves with plenty of trust. And then, they’ll have to put in the work to develop a whole strategy around being async if they plan to get it right; this includes a process for organization, asynchronous communication, effective documentation, and everything in between.

We’ll leave you with Amy Rigby’s summary of a successful async culture: “asynchronous workflows succeed when leaders set specific—and fairly high—standards of communication and documentation and when team members clarify and hold to expectations around shared goals and deadlines.”

Be sure to keep an eye out for our LinkedIn polls, where you’ll get the chance to vote for which What The Buzz we’ll be diving into next month.

Images sourced from pexels.com

Welcome to alfii’s What The Buzz series! Once a month, we’ll be choosing a trending industry term we see buzzing around LinkedIn statuses, blog posts, articles, lunch break conversations, or memes.

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