33: What is async work and is it truly attainable?
A global distributed workforce means access to untapped talent but it also means time zone and synchronous meeting challenges. The solution isn’t less meetings or hybrid meetings. It's asynchronous communication. We’re going to cover what it means to have the autonomy to say: “I’ll get to that on my own time”.
A global distributed workforce means access to untapped talent but it also means time zone and synchronous meeting challenges.
Getting everyone from your local Toronto office to show up to the same meeting at 10am EST is pretty easy. Running the same meeting with a team spread across 5 time zones makes this much more challenging. Especially if you want to promote autonomous and flexible work schedules.
The solution isn’t less meetings or hybrid meetings. The solution is asynchronous communication.
In today’s episode we’re going to cover what async means exactly, being able to say “I’ll get that done on my own time”.
We’ll dispel some of the misconceptions and dive into the stages of transformation towards autonomy.
Hopefully you’ll be better positioned to encourage async in your day to day, whether you're in-house or freelance adapting now is key for leading any teams in the future.
Hundreds of companies declared themselves remote first and digital first last year. A lot of them are massive corporations too. This transition will be excruciatingly slow and painful for big orgs.
These orgs are studying companies who have been doing this for decades. Remote work isn’t new for everyone.
Convertkit, Close, Basecamp (60+ actually much lower with recent policy changes), Helpscout, Clearbit, Buffer, Doist (100+) and Zapier is 500 people, remote-first all smaller, very little funding, innovators in the remote space.
There’s also the bigger teams too.
Automattic, the people behind WordPress are 1,000+ global distributed team and have been from the early days.
InVision is fully remote, 1000+, GitHub is 3,000+.
Something all of these distributed work pioneers talk about is over-communication in the written form, but specifically, asynchronous communication.
In the world of most marketers, and knowledge workers for that matter, very little of your day to day tasks are emergencies, or require immediate action.
The nature of async can be summed with a short sentence: I’ll get to that as soon as I get the chance, or on my own time.
Async is sending a message and having a common understanding that an immediate response is not expected. Email is usually async. You send it and you expect an answer in a day or 2 or more. Recipient opens that email on their time and responds when they get the chance.
Synchronous communication is sending a message and the recipient needs to process and respond in real time immediately. In a meeting with your team on Zoom, you say something, your team members receive and respond right away.
When you take the time to think about it, most of what you do in your job could be done with a 1-way written update sent to a single person or a group of people, who can respond as soon as they get the chance.
Obviously there’s times when there’s emergencies, or sometimes the nature of your work requires real time collaboration like live support teams or front line sales reps, and there’s different ways of tackling those situations than async.
Instead of saying: hey do you have 15mins to chat today About this project?
Async is saying: here’s two questions I have regarding the last update you made on this project.
Instead of saying: here’s an invite to a meeting where I’m going to walk you through a project update and I’m mostly going to be doing the talking, everyone will be seeing this for the first time and I’ll be asking for your attention for 1 hour and immediate feedback.
Async is saying: here’s a short summary of a project update followed by a detailed overview of a problem I’m having and specific questions I’d like guidance on. Here’s what I’ve done so far, here’s when I need an answer by.
Deep work / flow state
A huge % of your workforce is introverted and perform better when they’ve had the chance to think before they are asked to give a response and give more space for flow/deep work.
Tons of research shows that increasing response times allows people time to reflect and remove emotion from the equation thus making better decisions.
Human centered way of working
As one CEO, Sudeesh Nair, of ThoughtSpot, very active on Twitter about async, one of my fav quotes from him is:
“…the ability to let people in whenever they want to work, however long they want to work in a day…that’s what asynchronous is about. If you think that way, you have to make more intentional changes in the work process, collaboration process, to enable every one of those people to come into the workforce.”
Productive night owls
Many people are night owls. We’re all wired differently to be our most creative and intellectual during specific parts of the day, commonly, early morning and night.
This is derived from chronotypes, our preferred sleeping patterns.
But imagine forcing a pure night owl to work 9am to 5pm. And then giving this same person the ability to work 11-3pm and 9pm-11pm.
The opposite is also true for ultra early risers like JT.
Async teams give everyone way more flexibility to get their work done when they are more alert and productive.
Just gotta strive for some overlap, you can’t NEVER have in-person meetings.
Misconceptions / passing baton is too slow / project management tools suck
Passing the baton with project management tools
This might be hard for folks who are used to making decisions in a single room together and talking it out. Or if you’re used to getting answers to questions right away instead of spending time solo and figuring it out yourself.
Consider this: globally distributed teams, who work async and master ‘passing the baton’, can get three times more done than a local team relying on everybody to be in an office between 9am and 5pm.
This is something that Matt Mullenweg, Automattic CEO and WP founder has pointed out in a few podcasts.
A local centralised company that runs on real-time noisy office environments with plenty of all too common consensus-seeking meetings cannot and will not survive in the next few years.
Project management tools such as Asana are key to helping you run an async ship. How many sync/update meetings have you had where people go around the room one after the other updating everyone on their asana tasks when everyone knows they could’ve read up on those updates without a meeting.
This requires diligence and it’s not for everyone.
Project management tools often drive tennis games of back and forths.
Avoiding tennis games of back and forths
One of the biggest knocks against async is that it slows things down and often times, what could’ve been a simple pre-game discussion turned into a marathon tennis game of back and forth.
Tips to avoid this:
- Give context, lots of context, make it skimmable
- Give action items, deadlines when possible
Levels of autonomy / How you can help change your org
Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WP founder often talks about his levels of autonomy, it’s modeled after the self driving car level of autonomy.
Prioritize heads down time so you’re not constantly in zoom calls or on slack going back and forth.
One good first step is coming up with an internal definition and guidelines for async communication.
Allan Christensen, Doist COO, articulates their approach:
“Everyone at Doist knows that asynchronous communication is the default, and no one should expect an immediate response from their teammates. Not only does this make working with people in other time zones possible, but it also gives people the freedom to disconnect to focus completely on their work and come back to respond later.”