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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Writer, Culture Amp

It’s no secret that employees want flexibility – a demand that’s picked up steam in recent years. An impressive 94% of workers say they want flexibility in when they work, and 80% want flexibility in where they work.

But giving workers the control and autonomy they desire isn’t as simple as providing some schedule freedom or allowing people to work from home. Real flexibility means fully embracing asynchronous work, and this requires bigger changes to the way team members communicate and collaborate.

What exactly is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous work (often shortened to “async”) means people can work without having to engage with each other in real time. Employees aren’t expected to attend meetings or interact live — they can tend to tasks and questions on their own schedule.

Chances are good that you’re doing plenty of asynchronous work already. Email, collaborative documents, and recorded videos are all examples of async communication, while meetings, phone calls, and real-time instant message conversations are examples of synchronous communication.

Asynchronous work vs. remote work: What’s the difference?

“Async” and “remote” have both become household terms in recent years, and they’re easily confused. The two often go hand-in-hand — remote work usually incorporates a lot of async and vice versa — but they are different concepts.

It helps to think about it this way: Remote describes where you do the work, and async describes how the work gets done.

Working remotely means doing your work in a place where you aren’t co-located with your colleagues. Working asynchronously means doing your work without having to be signed on at the same time as your coworkers.

Pros and cons of asynchronous work

Since the majority of today’s workers want flexibility, it makes sense that they’re also in favor of async communication. In fact, 52% of employees say they’d like their company to be asynchronous-first.

But that doesn’t mean async is all perks and no pitfalls. Here are a few pros and cons to consider when deciding not necessarily if your organization supports asynchronous work (because, again, it’s already happening) but how much of it should be asynchronous.

Async work pros

  • Flexibility: Workers can’t have the schedule autonomy they crave if they’re expected to be logged in and active at specific hours. Working asynchronously gives people the freedom to work when it suits them best. It also allows distributed teams to collaborate more easily with team members in dramatically different time zones.
  • Focus: Research shows that employees are interrupted up to 15 times per hour, making it tough to zone in on deep work. Asynchronous work means less real-time communication and fewer of the urgent pings, meetings, and other disruptions that rip people’s attention from their actual to-do’s.
  • Documentation: Because async work is built on communication that’s easily revisited – emails, recorded videos, documents, and more – there’s a built-in paper trail. People don’t need to worry about losing track of something that was said in passing or invest time into manually summarizing and saving conversations.

Async work cons

  • Disconnection: Loneliness is a growing problem among employees, with 82% of workers admitting they’ve felt lonely at work. Async communication involves less real-time, personal connection between coworkers, which can make them feel even more isolated from the people they work with.
  • Miscommunication: Our nonverbal cues – facial expressions, gestures, posture, eye contact, vocal pitch and volume, and more – add a lot of context to communication. While some methods of async collaboration (like recorded videos) allow those cues to shine through, other formats don’t. That can increase the potential for misperceptions and misunderstandings.
  • Speed: Async communication isn’t immediate, which can be frustrating for urgent issues that need fast answers. Working asynchronously requires some patience, as well as clear communication about what topics warrant a synchronous approach and a speedy response.

5 tips for making the most of asynchronous work

Email has been around for decades, so no organization is starting from scratch with asynchronous work. But just because you’re already doing it doesn’t mean you’re doing it well. Here are five tips to ensure asynchronous work is a benefit and not a barricade.

1. Understand what communication can be async and what can’t

While employees express a preference for async-first communication, that doesn’t mean they only want async communication. The majority want an even balance. Getting that right means thinking carefully about which method to use when.

To figure out which approach is right for your specific scenario, it’s worth asking:

  • How urgent is this?
  • How sensitive is this?
  • How complicated is this?

Topics that are particularly pressing, complex, or confidential (for example, performance reviews or career development conversations) are usually better communicated from person to person in real-time. Lighter or less consequential subjects like project status updates or brainstorming are just as efficient and effective (if not more so) when done asynchronously.

2. Establish communication norms and guidelines

Async doesn’t work if some team members continue to default to real-time conversations for everything. Get people on the same page by outlining communication norms and expectations.

For example, maybe you’ll use instant messages for quick requests, but keep all other project-specific comments and questions in your project management platform. Or perhaps you’ll require team members to share relevant resources and documents ahead of live meetings, so people have adequate time to review and contribute asynchronously if they prefer.

While you don’t want to become too prescriptive in how people communicate, setting some ground rules will mitigate conflicts and ensure asynchronous work supports your team, rather than stresses them out.

3. Evaluate your existing meetings

We’ve all heard the complaints about meetings. The average employee attends 62 meetings per month and considers half of them a waste of time. That’s 31 work hours spent in unproductive meetings every single month.

Meetings aren’t inherently bad, but it’s worth assessing if the sitdowns on your team’s schedule – particularly recurring ones – are productive enough to continue taking up time.

Has your team’s weekly meeting turned into a glorified status update or catch-up session? Consider moving it to an async document. Or have one real-time meeting a month with weekly check-ins via email. That strikes a balance between async and synchronous and gives people some much-needed breathing room on their calendars.

4. Find other ways to foster connections

Employees want to feel like they’re working with other people – not just other email addresses or headshots on Slack. Limiting how much synchronous work your team does can take a toll on their camaraderie or level of familiarity.

To avoid this, encourage people to connect on a more personal level, even if it happens asynchronously.

For example, you could start a weekly tradition where you ask team members to share personal photos that fit a certain theme (most embarrassing high school photo, pets, vacations…the sky’s the limit). Or create an instant messaging channel where people can start their day by dropping the GIF that best describes their current mood.

These lighthearted ways to bond are simple, fun, and allow people to participate at a time that works for them.

5. Create templates and other resources

The easier you can make it for people to do their work without real-time conversations, the more likely they are to do so.

Templates can be a big help in streamlining and systemizing work without having to talk through endless nuances and changes.

Whether you set up a quick form for other people to submit a work request to your department or create a templated document for your team to drop their weekly updates, this level of predictability seamlessly integrates async into your team’s routines.

Embracing the async advantage

Async empowers your team to do their work with fewer interruptions and more flexibility – so it makes sense that this approach is gaining in popularity.

Reaping the benefits of asynchronous work may require your organization to change its infrastructure. If you implement async-first communication and meeting guidelines, give your people time to adjust. Remember to stop frequently and ask yourself and your team what’s working well and what isn’t. Use that information to adapt, move forward, and embrace async in the way that best supports your team.

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Keep in tune with your employees – even when working async

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