What Is Asynchronous Work?


By Laura Bowley, Virtual Facilitator and Meeting Producer, Neolé Inc.

The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that those who could, started to work from home. Fortunately, we had the tools to pivot quickly do remote work. Email, Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Dropbox, and everything that exists in the Cloud meant that we could work from home as long as our internet connection cooperated. 

However, as the pandemic continues, we’re seeing the downside of remote work, including a blurring of work and home life and increased stress. As a result, we’re seeking opportunities to work better and smarter. One such opportunity is asynchronous work.

What is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous Work Defined 

Asynchronous or “async” work is activity that is done independently, on one’s own time. Although async work typically is collaborative, focused on a common goal, and dependent on input from others (for example, team work on a project), async work doesn’t require an immediate response or action from another person. Basically, asynchronous work is work that doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone in the team or company.

The opposite of async is synchronous, where work is done together, at the same time. An example of synchronous work is a meeting (in-person or virtual). Another example of synchronous work is work done collaboratively using a digital tool—usually within the context of a virtual meeting and hopefully under the guidance of a facilitator—such as Mural, Stormz or even the Zoom whiteboard.

The benefit of synchronous work is that decisions are made quickly. Using back-and-forth methods of communication, such as live discussion on video conferencing or the telephone, or chatting via a text-based tool. Remote work has laid bare the truth, however; endless back-to-back Zoom meetings, Slack notifications at all hours and 24-hour email have left us thinking there’s got to be a better way. The answer, as many are realizing, lies in async.

We’re Using Asynchronous Tools the Wrong Way

Yet, we’re turning async tools into synchronous tools. 

Working in offices meant that people could quickly solve issues or get input simply by dropping by a team member’s cubicle. Email, Slack, IM, etc. were all used pre-pandemic, but now that we can’t drop by someone’s desk or meet up with them by the coffee machine, we’ve moved those discussions into asynchronous tools, with the expectation of a synchronous response. We were impatient pre-pandemic; now we’re remote as well. Lonely, uncertain, pining for adult contact, under extreme pressure, and damn, why haven’t they gotten back to me yet? It’s like an addiction: send a message and get an immediate hit of human contact!

The end result is that we’re now living in our workspace and working in our living space. The final wall between office and home has been eliminated. And it’s wearing on us. 

Companies that moved to remote work expected lower productivity. Quite the opposite has happened. Their employees are more productive than ever and working longer hours too. Remote work has proved beneficial to employees as well; the commute is gone, they’re spending more time with their families—in many ways, work/life balance has improved.

Start a Cultural Shift Towards Asynchronous Work

So how do we keep working remotely, realizing more benefits for ourselves, our families, our teams and our companies, and yet maintain our sanity?

The answer is in allowing asynchronous work to be asynchronous and in finding more opportunities to do so.

Asynchronous work doesn’t necessarily mean more email. More email and less Slack won’t make a difference. 

Asynchronous work is an expectation that is set at the management level, or at least by the team leader. 

Empowering asynchronous work takes a shift in culture that says, “It’s OK to put off responding to an email until tomorrow. It’s OK to block a few hours on your calendar to focus. It is OK if you can’t get back to me right away because your kid is doing online school and needs your help.” It takes a culture that defines expectations around what constitutes issues that require immediate attention. It’s a culture that makes it acceptable for team members to have office hours and home hours, even when working at home.

Organizations and companies will continue to embrace remote work and work-from-home (WFH) even after it becomes safe to return en masse to the office. Employees are going to demand the option; many won’t want to go back to the office, at least not full time. Companies are realizing the benefits of remote work in terms of savings on office space, increased productivity, and the ability to hire talented people from anywhere in the world. Time zone differences will also open the door for new async tools.

How Your Organization Can Embrace Asynchronous Work

Culture change and software development take a lot of time. While we work on that, let’s take a look at what you can do now to embrace asynchronous work in your organization.

First, most people don’t know what asynchronous work means. Work is work and we do it when we need to, with most of us leaping from crisis to crisis. Within your team, start talking about asynchronous work. Define it. Talk about priority setting. Open a Slack channel and start a discussion about how asynchronous work could be applied in your team. (Make it clear that you don’t expect an immediate response!)

Second, think about what could be automated. For example, ask how you might use the tools you have now to automate tasks, save time and move things forward without (much) human intervention. Ask what other tools might you need, for example, Zapier.

Third (but not least!), examine how you run your meetings. If there’s one truth that the pandemic and WFH drove home, it’s that we spend far too much time in meetings. We knew that before, and going virtual hasn’t changed anything.

How to Spend Less Time in Meetings

Implementing a couple of basic meeting rules can help. To start, define the purpose of the meeting. What do you need to achieve? If animated discussion is determined to be the fastest way to fulfill the meeting’s purpose, determine who needs to be at the meeting and don’t invite anyone who doesn’t need to be there. Make sure every person at the meeting knows their role and is ready to contribute. Define your agenda ahead of time; distribute it and stick to it.

Then, think about how asynchronous tools could be used to make the time spent in the meeting more productive. Think about what decisions could be made asynchronously through collaborative tools before the meeting rather than taking up hours of everyone’s time during the meeting—including the time of people who don’t need to be part of the discussion. For example, distribute documents before the meeting for review and comments in a collaborative platform such as Google Docs. The owner of the document will then know what to focus the discussion on during the meeting. They may even be able to solve some issues before the meeting.

We like to use Howspace to build collaborative workspaces for large meetings that involve many people and a multitude of decisions. Among other things, documents can be uploaded here for review using a chat function that feels familiar to users, like Facebook. Howspace polls can gauge participant sentiments and help guide discussions and decision making. 

Synchronous Tools to Make Meetings More Productive and Engaging

When synchronous meetings do need to take place, try using a digital platform such as Stormz—under the guidance of a facilitator—to guide divergent and convergent ideation and the development of creative solutions. Doing so can make meetings much more fruitful, collaborative, engaging and fun. (Pro Hint: Stormz and Howspace can both be used in an anonymous mode. So, participants can make comments and vote anonymously. People feel freer to comment when the boss is out of earshot!)

And, to ensure people are not sidelined during discussions, tap into the smarts and creativity of all participants by moving them to breakout rooms for small-group work. We recommend six or fewer people per room, with clear instructions and the tools to do their work synchronously within the breakout rooms. Not only will the discussion be more productive, but everyone will feel energized from the experience.

Remote work will make meetings more essential than ever. We’re humans; we are social animals. We need to be together. Even with all the positives of WFH, working remotely can be lonely. Meetings are our way to connect. We need them to be better, shorter, more purposeful, productive and fun, something to look forward to rather than dread. Allowing for increased async work can result in reduced stress for team members, and better communication, better decisions, enhanced creativity and productivity for organizations. Async work can help us achieve that balance between remote work on our own time and synchronous work together.

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