When businesses went remote due to the pandemic, it was a grand experiment in flexible working arrangements. But despite the many successes of remote work for employees and companies alike, some notable challenges have arisen over the past two years.
First, we’ve seen that remote employees are actually working more hours now, and not surprisingly, this is negatively affecting all aspects of their well-being. We’ve also witnessed the emergence of a two-tiered workplace in some hybrid companies, where employees who choose to work on-site are given preferential treatment over those who prefer to work remotely.
Many companies view a “remote-first” mindset as the solution here, where remote work is considered the default mode rather than a nice-to-have perk that workers should use sparingly. In a remote-first culture, all workplace social interactions occur virtually and if even one person is attending a meeting from home, then everyone else will attend virtually as well.
Adopting this approach will surely help employers address the fairness issue that’s arising in hybrid workplaces. What a remote-first approach doesn’t address, however, are some of the other problems facing virtual staff — from the need to be always online and responsive, to the requirement to work a 9-to-5 schedule even when their job doesn’t necessitate it.
Enter asynchronous work, which may sound unfamiliar but is actually more widely practiced than you may think. For this week’s newsletter, I discuss this new-yet-old way of working using insights from two CEOs whose companies have been remote for many years: Amir Salihefendic and Shane Pearlman, both of whom I recently interviewed in collaboration with Airspeed.
Salihefendic is the CEO of Doist, a company that creates tools that simplify and organize the workday. His company has been remote since he first started it in 2007. Pearlman is the CEO of Modern Tribe, a digital agency that has been remote since it was founded in 2006. Let’s take a look at how these leaders define asynchronous work and the ways in which this approach has benefited their companies.
What is asynchronous work?
In an asynchronous model, employees work on their own timetables, when it’s most convenient for them, and without any expectation of immediately replying to others. Companies allow their workers the freedom to finish their tasks and answer their colleagues at their own convenience as long as it’s within a reasonable time frame. In fact, workers are actually encouraged to avoid real-time communication so that they (and their co-workers) can focus.
Salihefendic strongly believes that the next evolution of remote first will be asynchronous first. “Most people still don't really know what this is, but it basically means that you’re not doing Zoom calls and Slack chats all day long. Most of your work is either deep work or you're disconnected or you're in a meeting, but you try to keep meetings and synchronous work to a minimum.”
He adds that this evolution is necessary because simply moving the office environment into the cloud, which is what happened during COVID-19, clearly hasn’t worked. “Many companies have tried to replicate in-person meetings through Zoom, and then everyone feels this fatigue. I'm not sure if you’ve been in hour long Zoom calls — it's not very fun!”
The benefits of an asynchronous approach
The pros of adopting an asynchronous model are certainly compelling. With asynchronous communication, remote workers have fewer distractions throughout the day, thus allowing more time for deep work and deep thinking. Rather than continually checking and answering emails, Slack, and WhatsApp, they can complete long stretches of focused work.
Salihefendic believes that the most important benefit is the ability for employees to disconnect and plan their own day as they like, because they’re not stuck in a 9-to-5 schedule. Pearlman agrees, adding that an asynchronous approach lets people optimize their schedules around when they’re most productive and energetic.
“When you don't care about time zones or keeping a 9-to-5 schedule, it frees you up to design your work around your best life. There are a lot of people whose peak energy level is at 11:00 at night. Other people work best in the morning. So this idea that work happens in this weird slot based on where you live is a little silly,” he says.
“And because this way of working allows people to be much more focused on deep work, it really empowers creators,” notes Salihefendic. “These are people who need head space and the ability to focus, whether it’s writing, designing, coding, strategic thinking, or whatever else they do. Being asynchronous first enables people to disconnect naturally.”
Of course, let’s not forget that an asynchronous approach can also be highly beneficial for teams working in different time zones. It means that employees don’t have to take calls at strange hours, and it allows for work to happen more seamlessly — without the bottlenecks that can happen when global teams rely on real-time communication to move projects forward.
Tips for transitioning to an asynchronous model
For employers who want to adopt this new way of working, Salihefendic advises a gradual shift to a more asynchronous pattern. “For instance, start by introducing a handbook. Or abolish 9-to-5 schedules. Or don't evaluate people if they are working from 9-to-5 — find other ways to evaluate their work.”
Other important first steps include putting a foundation in place by deciding on new processes and locations for where content, materials, and resources will live. “If you just do it one day at a time, it won’t be a huge shock for people,” Salihefendic says. “Slowly, I think you can move into remote first and asynchronous first.”
Another success factor, Pearlman adds, is clearly defining your company’s communication expectations. “Agreeing on rules as an organization creates a platform where people really understand what's expected of them and how to communicate. A lot of accountability fails are just communication fails, and they have a lot to do with confusion between what's synchronous and asynchronous communication.”
Pearlman shares a personal example to illustrate this point. “My wife will send me a WhatsApp message, and I'll look at it and think, "Okay, I'll get to that when I want." Then two minutes later, I'll see another, "Did you see my message? I can see that you saw my message. Why aren't you replying?"
“In her head,” he explains, “text messaging is synchronous. It’s a conversation, it’s supposed to go back and forth. For me, it's asynchronous. It's like email, I'll get to it when I get to it.” This same type of confusion is happening in many workplaces, Pearlman says. “A lot of interpersonal conflicts have to do with the fact that people haven't agreed on what is synchronous and asynchronous, and they get frustrated with each other.”
Pearlman offers up one final piece of wisdom for organizations adopting an asynchronous model: consider some sort of structure or requirements around people’s schedules. “We found that we had to make some decisions — so every team has to overlap by three hours. That's a rule we came up with through a lot of experience. We've learned you need to at least be able to count that somebody's there at some point.”
A leap worth taking
If done well, an asynchronous approach allows communication to flow through a company regardless of time zones or working hours. This model also allows employees to work on their own schedules and when they’re at their optimum — whether that’s at nine in the morning, three in the morning, or during the weekends.
Although moving to asynchronous work can involve a major shift in mindset, it’s worth considering for your organization if you feel that your remote staff are struggling — especially since so many employees are quitting en masse due to burnout, poor work-life balance, and a lack of flexibility.
I hope you enjoyed these insights — don’t forget to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know whether your company uses an asynchronous approach, and how you’ve made it successful.