The time for asynchronous remote work is now

First, we got loads of ‘best tools for remote work’ lists.

Then we got ‘video conferencing is exhausting’ articles.

Clearly, people are scrambling to make ‘remote’ work for them.

Some advice: The next step after using software to *replicate* the office is to find ways to *transcend* the office.

  • Don’t rely on instant messaging. 
  • Avoid the temptation to ‘jump on a call’. 
  • Stop meetings where the only purpose is to make management feel good about the work their underlings have performed (because they did nothing themselves).

With a constant stream of messages, requests for video calls, and pointless scheduled meetings, your team is now dealing with all the frustrations and interruptions of the office, but at home.

Remote work can offer so much more.

The solution is to upgrade your remote work approach and work asynchronously.

What is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous work is when people work together, separately. There’s no need to be working at the same time. For this to work:

  • Communication is clear and transparent. 
  • Everyone understands the ultimate goal and how their day-to-day work helps achieve that goal.
  • Work tasks are properly documented. Deliverables are clear. Feedback is precise and actionable.

But the key is that your team communicates when they want, not when they are told to. (i.e. mandated instant messaging availability, 15 min email response times, etc.)

When companies start working remotely, it sometimes makes ‘presenteeism’ worse. Bosses want to see activity. Employees want to be visible. 

So what happens? Everyone happily chats away and has pointless conversations, just to show they are available and working.

This isn’t the ‘deep work’ (as Cal Newport calls it) that really adds value to the team.

When you take the burden of ‘always-on’, constant communication away, time and energy are freed up for the taxing, complex work that really matters.

Poor management is exposed by asynchronous working

Some leaders can’t possibly see how they could manage their team without a barrage of chat messages and video calls to ‘catch up’ and ‘stay on the same page’.

But if you constantly need to ‘jump on calls’ to clarify work requests you’re quite obviously doing it wrong: You’ve not given clear instructions or you have a dysfunctional team.

Management should be about setting the overall direction of the work, then getting out of the way and clearing blockages so the work can progress. This shouldn’t mean chasing up work all day, which suggests you didn’t communicate when it was needed. (Or it could mean you have nothing to offer beyond harassing your own team: brush up your CV 😬)

The beauty of asynchronous work is that it *requires* absolute clarity of communication. And everyone benefits from that.

  • Work deliverables must be defined. 
  • Context should be given. 
  • The end goal should be clear.

Meetings should be the *last* resort, not the first.

If you’re a manager and spend most of your time on calls clarifying work scopes and deadlines, you’re a bad manager. Asynchronous work will expose your weakness but, if you address it, your team will benefit.

Asynchronous working is inclusive

Asynchronous work isn’t just about bridging timezone gaps (though that is a huge benefit), it means your whole team can participate.

No-one is left out of meetings because they weren’t able to attend.

Decisions aren’t made in closed meetings and imposed on the rest of the team.

If you want the best out of people, include them. Counter-intuitively, this is far easier to do when working asynchronously.

Asynchronous defaults to transparency and over-communication. Without the opportunity for someone to ask immediate follow up questions, you’re forced to give as much detail as possible.

Whether it’s written communication or a recorded video, a record exists that allows everyone to participate. This means everyone has equal access to information. 

(NB: this doesn’t necessarily mean a flat decision making structure, but it does it mean everyone can see what decision was made and why.)

Asynchronous working is productive

Everyone has a different working style.

When you replicate the office online, it’s common that you also replicate management’s own particular working style preferences.

Yes, now people don’t have to commute, but you’re still making them work the way *you* want and not how *they* want.

  • Some people work better when they start early.
  • Some work better when they work late.
  • Some work better when they break up their day.
  • Some work better when they live in a different timezone (!)

When you make people conform to your own personal preference, you’re holding back the productive potential of your team.

Fundamentally, asynchronous working allows people to manage their energy, rather than their time. That results in higher productivity, better quality work, and less burnout.

You can’t know what energises individual people and allows them to do their best work. But it’s very unlikely to be an ‘always available between 9-5’ environment. Empower your team to do their best work.

Communication is everything

Asynchronous only works with exceptional communication.

And this is a serious problem.

Most organisations are terrible at clear, transparent communication. As in, really, really abyssal. They rely on informal networks and hearsay – management by osmosis

But guess what? Even if you don’t choose to work asynchronously (though I really think you should), better communication can only benefit your team.

When you commit to better communication – clear project scoping, detailed and actionable feedback, explaining important decisions – you’ll make work easier to carry out and more transparent.

Transparency is important as it gives your team the chance to make things better. People can help each other out when they know what they’re working on, they can suggest alternative methods if they have more experience, they can spot problems that might emerge.

Opening up communication has all kinds of benefits. The only downside is to the micromanaging boss who uses remote work to control the flow of information – management by omission. And who doesn’t want to disrupt that guy?!

Clearing up some misnomers

Asynchronous working doesn’t mean ‘no video calls’. It just means they aren’t normally *required* to get the work done.

The point is not to use the easy/lazy communication of instant messaging and video calls to cover up for poor project management.

If people want to have a video call, fine. But the onus is on the participants to then summarise that call so everyone can see the outcomes. (If it was just a natter, obviously you don’t need a summary!).

Working asynchronously means *working on tasks* asynchronously. You obviously need to embed human contact into your team’s working practices.

Ideation, mentorship, training, building team rapport, making friends at work, are all vital and not just nice-to-have.

Asynchronous work is an attitude, not a religion. It’s more inclusive, facilitates greater productivity, and creates open communication by default. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to do it. Be open to experimentation.

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