WTF   //   April 14, 2022

WTF is asynchronous work?

Even the simplest of concepts can get tangled without proper coordination. That’s currently the case with asynchronous working — another future-of-work buzz term for a method of working that’s existed for a while, but like many things — got expedited during the pandemic.

While many companies embraced this form of working successfully, far more are jumping in feet first without truly understanding what it means. And with no clear coordination around it, it can quickly become messy and confusing.

We’ve broken down exactly what it is, why it’s important and how to get it right.

Let’s start by defining what asynchronous work is, versus synchronous work. 

Synchronous work is when two (or more) colleagues are speaking directly with each other about work or a specific project, either in person or virtually, at the exact same time, so their responses to each other are in real-time. Asynchronous is the opposite: when people are communicating at entirely different times of the day and an immediate answer isn’t expected. This could be because they’re in different time zones, or picking up their kids from school, or because they’re working flexible hours that are different to other team members. Whatever the reason, it’s a method of working that allows teams to collaborate and work on something together, but on their own schedules.

Right, so this is a new way of working driven by the pandemic when everyone had to work remotely with their teams in different locations?

Kinda. Like most things, the pandemic accelerated a method that already existed — it was just more organic and random in how it was being used before. Shared-doc tools, that multiple people can add to, have made this possible for a while. Email is theoretically an asynchronous form of communication. But because there aren’t really established rules on it — unless you’re in a country like Portugal where employers are banned from messaging workers outside of established working hours — or have a culture that specifically vetoes responding to emails outside of work hours — typically if a manager sends emails on the weekends or late at night, it tends to mean their people feel pressure to respond at those times. The difference is that now businesses are putting structure around asynchronous working and it’s become a much more broadly accepted form of working than before the pandemic.

Sounds pretty simple, what’s causing the confusion? 

The confusion is occurring because not everyone has understood that to make it work well, you need to set some guardrails on how it’s going to work.

“When you hear a lot of managers right now saying they’re overloaded, it’s because there are no rules [around asynchronous working],” said Cali Yost, CEO of workplace consultancy Flex+Strategy Group. “If everyone is doing their own thing, there is no coordination. It’s a mess.”

We’ve all entered a period of experimentation and iteration when it comes to what our new working models are. Those that have embraced hybrid models are having teething problems because teams aren’t always coordinated on when they will be in the office and when they won’t. Then there could be individuals who have been given permission to work the hours that suit them best — whether it’s based on childcare needs, time zones, or they simply feel more productive at different times of the day.

And no matter how intentional you are in communication (let alone if you’re not), there is always something that will be misunderstood, left out or needed to progress the project. If someone has a follow-up question they may end up waiting hours or days for a response, and that can cause frustration and confusion.

So how do you avoid those frustrations, what frameworks should leaders put in place for teams working asynchronously?

Microsoft’s asynchronous working model is a fairly well-oiled machine. But a knock-on effect of hybrid and asynchronous working is that people’s peak productivity times are no longer what they were before. And that can create challenges for all businesses, if left unchecked. Microsoft’s latest Trend Index revealed that the average Teams user sends 42% more out-of-hours messages than they did before the pandemic, culminating in a third productivity peak around 10 p.m. in the evening, whereas previous peaks were before and after lunch, according to Nick Hedderman, director, Modern Work Business Group, Microsoft UK. For that reason, he believes it’s critical for leaders to take a “deliberate, thoughtful approach” to managing asynchronous working — largely because, such flexibility can quickly become a problem if it blurs people’s work-life boundaries in an unhealthy way.

To skirt that becoming an issue for teams, leaders need to cultivate an open, collaborative culture. “Leaders should seek to ensure all team members are comfortable sharing open, direct expectations and requirements regardless of seniority, while also working to develop empathy and mutual understanding of each other’s personal circumstance within a team,” said Hedderman. “This may also include ensuring team members account for the new digital etiquette we’ve collectively developed in the use of platforms such as Microsoft Teams, including at-mentioning colleagues in posts if a response or action is expected.”

Leaders and managers should work together to deliver on this culture day-in, day-out, he added. “Every ask from colleague to colleague should be accompanied by clear timelines and expectations, or defined flexibility where possible — accounting for a rich understanding of each other’s ways of working throughout,” explained Hedderman.

So when starting an asynchronous project, what should be on the checklist?

So everyone knows what’s expected, it’s important to establish from the get-go: what are the project’s goals, who needs to be involved, how will the progress be measured, and what the timeline should look like. Figuring out a smart way to track progress is also useful. “When establishing what good looks like [for an asynchronous project], we look at what we want to track along the way, sometimes even on a daily basis, so we all have the same expectation and the same definition of what we’re working on, and what’s expected by what time,” said Lindsay Tjepkema, CEO and founder of Casted, a 50-person marketing tech company. “That way people can have the freedom to lean in and out, knowing where they need to be at each step of the process.”

Will asynchronous working remain important for the future of work?

Absolutely. Because the pandemic has blown the traditional five-day office workweek model out of the water. People don’t want to go back to how things were before, because they have discovered a better work-life balance over the last two years. But most would like to be in the office for certain days, and work remotely for the rest and organizations are accommodating that. So that means that a lot of the time, teams won’t always be in the same place where they can communicate in real-time if their employer has adopted a hybrid model. Likewise, others who are working on flexible hours may just have fine-tuned their day around when they’re most productive, which could be different to a team member’s best hours. Or they could be in a different time zone or be working at different times due to childcare needs. What it boils down to: it’s a pretty inclusive way of working.

“It’s vital to creating a thriving hybrid work environment,” said Jenny Burns, CEO of innovation and design consultancy Fluxx mN. “With asynchronous, remote workers have a better chance of staying productive and focused. Rather than continually checking and answering messages, they can focus on concentrated work. This boosts productivity and in turn a better outcome.”