In-person work is largely dependent on real-time communication, but replicating that culture in a virtual environment brought a range of challenges, including Zoom fatigue, meeting overload, and constant disruptions that make it extra challenging to get work done.
For many, the solution was a rapid return to the office, despite countless studies showing most employees prefer working remotely and are more productive when they do. More forward-looking organizations, however, are seeking to depend less on those traditional modes of real-time communication and embrace asynchronous communication instead.
Like remote work, however, you can’t just flip a switch or declare that your organization is async and expect everything to fall into place. Making the transition effective requires careful planning, ongoing dialogue with staff, updating longstanding processes, and onboarding new tools.
Here are five key steps to help you redesign your work culture around asynchronous work.
1. Go together
According to the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This saying is especially apt when we talk about async work because it’s designed to enable individuals to go fast alone, and teams can go far together. Before you begin your journey, it’s important to have honest conversations with your team about what the transition will look like in practical terms.
Before running an async experiment, digital HR services provider Oyster suggests engaging in ongoing dialogue with staff about the realities of the change.
“We’d suggest over-communicating the concept at first to ensure that everyone is aligned on what’s expected and how to approach it,” wrote Rhys Black, the company’s head of workplace design. “Acknowledge that you are all learning and evolving the process together—and your team’s feedback is what’s really going to shape the experience moving forward.”
Through these conversations, leaders can better understand whether async is the right fit for their organization and collect buy-in from staff before implementing changes.
2. Adopt a culture of transparency and documentation
It’s no coincidence that one of the most successful async organizations in the world, GitLab, lists transparency as one of its core values. That’s because cutting down on interruptions requires information to be readily available in a forum that doesn’t have gatekeepers.
The company believes that “by making information public, we can reduce the threshold to contribution and make collaboration easier.” They offer a massive public repository of information about itself and its inner workings and a publicly accessible company handbook that is updated regularly. The two tools seek to answer any question a customer or employee might have without tapping anyone on the shoulder or pinging their device.
“Everything we do is public by default,” explained co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij and chief of staff Stella Treas in those very documents. “Encourage others to default to documentation rather than pressuring others to be online outside their working hours.”
3. Set clear guidelines for what constitutes a “necessary” meeting
The goal of async is to reduce our reliance on real-time communication, but every business has moments when they can’t be avoided. The problem is that the bar for what constitutes a “necessary” meeting has gotten too low. That’s what ultimately inspired Shopify to cancel meetings altogether. This past February, the Canadian e-commerce giant announced it was cutting 322,000 hours of meetings by eliminating all recurring engagements with three or more people.
“Uninterrupted time is the most precious resource of a craftsperson, and we are giving our people a ‘no judgment zone’ to subtract, reject meetings, and focus on what is most valuable,” Kaz Nejatian, Shopify’s vice-president of product and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “People have been saying ‘no’ to meetings from me, and I’m the COO of the company. And that’s great,” he added.
Getting serious about async requires us to wean off our meeting addiction and replace them with async communication like audio, text, or video messages.
4. Establish norms that protect deep-work periods
If you want your team members to get things done, you must give them the time and space. Going from deep work to answering a few emails or Slack messages can send us way off track. That is why I built Bubbles, a platform designed to optimize async communications across various formats.
I work best when I can cross an item off my to-do list before checking email, responding to Bubbles, or taking calls. This allows me to avoid context-switching and focus on the task. I can do so because my team no longer expects an immediate reply, and that expectation also extends to them.
Making async work requires the establishment of new norms around communication response times to protect against interrupting deep work periods.
Tom Medema is the founder of Bubbles, one of the fastest-growing remote work tools in tech. As a former CTO, he scaled his last company’s remote engineering team from 1 to 150 in under two years. Those growing pains led to Bubbles, an async video collaboration platform that enables people, on average, to eliminate 41% of their meetings.