Why asynchronous working can lead to a happy and healthy work culture

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

In my last blog, we talked about burnout and The Great Exhaustion. One potential route to rebuilding co-support, resilience and performance in our team is through moving to an asynchronous model of working. But how?

Why has working from home (WFH) been so exhausting for so many?

In an office, we can talk to a group of colleagues simultaneously, visit someone’s desk or chat to someone in the corridor as we’re walking.

When WFH we send out hundreds of DMs and emails. We think of these interactions as conversations — and expect them to be replied to instantaneously.

Email was never supposed to replace conversations. It was originally used by academics as a replacement for paper memos and letters. It was designed as another form of asynchronous communication, but we use it synchronously.

But how much of a problem is this? This diagram illustrates the number of separate lines of communication that there are in different sized teams.

These lines of communication are hard enough to manage when we’re all working in the same place, let alone when we’re working remotely. It’s particularly hard if you’re using systems like email; a system that was never designed to be used this way.

So doesn’t this mean that we should just return to the office?

No. Here’s why.

Employees want more flexible working and they will leave if you don’t offer it.

A flexible, hybrid office environment, when designed properly, offers many benefits.

  • Better for employee mental health.
  • A more motivated and productive workforce
  • A better work life balance
  • Decreased emissions and single use packaging waste

Take, for example, global creative agency VWMY&R, who have just won Campaign’s Creative Network of the Year. They realised early on in the pandemic that their ‘business as usual’ systems weren’t working.

Collaborating on creative pitches is the at the heart of their business but their employees were suffering from meeting fatigue and it just wasn’t working.

They decided to create internal digitally-led creative hubs. The hubs

  • allowed colleagues across different time zones to work independently on projects and pitches
  • leave feedback on colleagues work
  • at times that suited them

Each hub was assigned a lead curator. This person’s role was to channel all feedback and ensure staff had a clear direction.

Now they weren’t restricted to using local talent; talent from across the globe started working together. New bonds were formed and new ideas were developed. CEO of Europe, Middle East and Africa, Andrew Dimitriou, said that

As an outcome, we probably had more meaningful discussions when we did come together, because rather than having to go over background each time, we were all ready to go,”

The reason that we’re overwhelmed isn’t because WFH is unmanageable, it’s because we’ve been using the wrong systems. It’s simply not effective to use email to manage multiple lines of communications.

Applying asynchronous techniques for appropriate types of work dramatically decreases the need to communicate instantaneously. It means fewer messages, interruptions and meetings. It stops your team from feeling as though they are at everyone’s beck and call and, crucially, allows autonomy over their workload.

Defining synchronous & asynchronous working

To understand how we might develop new systems for a hybrid future, let’s explore what these terms mean.

· Synchronous work: happens with others

· Asynchronous work: happens by yourself

I wrote about the differences between synchronous and asynchronous working in my last blog. Here’s a definition many people found helpful

From ‘Facilitating Asynchronously’ https://designsprintkit.withgoogle.com/relay2021/facilitating-asynchronously.html

General principles of asynchronous work

Preparation and structure

You really need to think about the purpose and objectives of your interactions — particularly meetings.

Why?

Meetings are a really inefficient way of sharing information when we are working remotely. It’s a synchronous interaction, which we often use to communicate information one way. Think about how you might use a digital portal or project management system to allow everyone to share what they’re working on. Would you still need those check in meetings? What could they become instead?

Transparency is key

To make async work, teams need to agree on expectations on time, agreed work and expected outcomes upfront.

Why?

When we are facilitating deep work with no interruptions, everyone needs to understand that they need to work more strategically and with greater alignment to their colleagues. This requires a level of discipline and weaning off expecting immediate responses.

Clarity

As the above image shows, the more people you have on your team, then more distributed you are, the more miscommunication is likely to happen. Invest time in writing, as opposed to conversations, as much as possible.

Why?

Quickly written emails in the place of ‘quick chats’ lead to misinterpretation. Emails and DMs are at their best when they provide detail and much needed context to others. When done right, emails can get everyone up to speed much quicker than a series of individual meetings or chats.

It’s not a magic bullet

Asynchronous working can’t be used for every part of your business. And it’s not something that can be introduced full scale overnight.

Why not?

There are times when you need to talk, make quick decisions and have casual hangouts. Synchronous is the way forward for this. Look at your structure of your business and decide which areas are better managed differently.

Communicate as much as possible upfront

In the office, it’s really easy to walk up and chat to a colleague. In a hybrid environment, efficiency is much more important. Give as much information as you can at the start of a communication, assuming that you won’t get an immediate response.

Why?

Asynchronous working assumes that your team can’t just be pinged at a moment’s notice. Give your colleague what they need to crack on.

Lead by example.

If you really think about it, most things we work on aren’t urgent. They might be important, but they’re not necessarily urgent.

Ask yourself:

· How can I train myself out of expecting immediate responses?

· How can I lengthen turnaround time — how can I have input from my team ahead of schedule, so that I can turn off your notifications for two hours?

· How can I model behaviour to my colleagues?

A lot of work for little return?

Adopting this approach is often a change of mindset for people. Teams may struggle with it initially because it requires more preparation and planning. They may see this as extra work.

Take it step by step and help them to see the bigger picture. It will eventually lead to deeper and more meaningful interactions between teams and people.

Asynchronous working stops us expecting that everything can be done on the hop. It’s a way of working that facilitates deep work. As Cal Newport said in his seminal book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

It doesn’t work for all teams and all activities all the time. And nor should it. It’s about achieving a balance and working out when different methods should be applied.

We need to move towards a way of working that listens to and responds to what our teams are asking for. We need to find new ways to support them to be productive and happy at work.

There has never been a better time to rethink how we are working together or most possibilities to redesign what our working day looks like. Let’s take this opportunity to reimagine what work looks like.

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Sascha Evans

Sascha Evans

Helping people work, learn and play together, even when they can't be together

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