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✦ Asynchronous work

Being asynchronous-first goes beyond working remotely. Pioneers in this space say they will never go back to being always-on and constantly available or stuck in long meetings—and their lives,

Image copyright: Jackson Gibbs
Jackson Gibbs
This story was published on our The Forecast newsletter, A look at emerging industries and trends around the corner.
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A day in the life of an employee working asynchronously
Image copyright: Jackson Gibbs

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Ready or not, work-from-anywhere is coming. Some young companies have moved on to “work whenever,” too. They’re asynchronous.

“Hang on,” you might say, “Aren’t I already working asynchronously? I’m toiling away at home, mostly setting my own schedule, joining in group chats only now and then.” It’s true: After nearly two years of working from home, outside the psychological boundaries set by in-person office routines, knowledge workers have become used to seeing time as more elastic.

But being asynchronous-first goes further. Pioneers in this space say they will never go back to being always-on and constantly available or stuck in long meetings—and their lives, as well as the work they produce, will be richer for it.

Explain it like I’m 5! 

Before business communication was digitized, conversations filled offices, and teams huddled around one computer or bulletin board to scheme and schmooze. Companies spoke to each other through conference calls and shared documents by fax or with the help of a bicycle courier. Then came email, which led to less chatting and more writing. And, finally, instant messaging platforms arrived to reorganize our lives.

Work chatter became the communal hearth we couldn’t leave. It lived on our phones and followed us everywhere, to dinners with friends, on morning runs. Strangely, as on-demand work took hold, companies still asked people to commute daily, and be present during prescribed hours, too.

Now, our mass acclimation to remote (pandemic) work has accelerated a movement that says not only that the office should be optional, but so should real-time communication and shared work schedules.

In an asynchronous-first workplace, rather than calling a colleague only to talk at them—to provide instructions, for example—people send short videos incorporating slides or interactive effects, meant to give their message more personality. (It’s much easier to read the tone of a video or audio message, compared to text or email messages.) Back-to-back Zoom calls are unheard of and no one cares when you work—or when you swim, for that matter—as long as assignments get done. Live in-person, phone, or video conversations are reserved for only a handful of situations. “Async” work gives people more autonomy, and asks everyone to rediscover the virtue of patience.

Pros / Cons   

➕ The case for asynchronous work

  • Saved time. Live meetings are hard to schedule and frequently unnecessary. Plus, asynchronous organizations need to maintain searchable records of events and a repository of information about how a company works, which reduces the amount of time people spend chasing information.
  • True flexibility. Flex hours are more inclusive; they’re invaluable to parents and other caregivers forced to deal with competing daytime obligations. But they’re also a gift to all employees: You’re the only one who knows when you’re most creative or able to think clearly. Another bonus: No more pushing life to the weekends and evenings, says Phil Libin, founder of mmHmm, an app for making effects-rich video messages and presentations, whose firm works asynchronously.
  • A level playing field. Hiring remote employees across geographies can strengthen a company’s talent base. Adopting explicit and intentional asynchronous work practices helps distant employees feel as valued as those at HQ.
  • Space for deep work. “When the expectation of an immediate response is removed, people are able to focus on their work for long periods of time while scheduling times of the day to reply to colleagues,” Jen Rhymer, a researcher at the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization at Stanford University, told the BBC.

➖And the case against

  • Some people swear by the (dubious) power of “spontaneous collaborations” which can only happen when people share time and space.
  • Workers are already lonely at home; why add to the sense of isolation?
  • When not properly planned and communicated, asynchronous messages can lead to more confusion, slowing work down.

By the digits

5: Hours per day that nine out of 10 workers spent checking messenger apps, according to a Zapier survey.

20%: Share of time by which the average meeting has shrunk since the pandemic began.

135 kg: Estimate of CO2 generated by a typical business user sending emails in a year (the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car).

90%: Share of workers who said they want flexibility in where and when they work in a global survey by EY.

1 in 4: Ratio of workers who said they would take a 10% to 20% pay cut to work flexibly after the pandemic

$317 billion: Estimated amount companies spent on information technology for remote work in 2020

24: Number of hours Doist employees might take to respond to a question from a colleague or CEO, under the company’s new “async” norms

The tech making it happen

Slack: The widely used team communication app recently added video and audio clip messaging

Twist: Like Slack, but tweaked to be far less focused on live chats

Rock: A communication hub that combines video calls, messaging, and document storage

Notejoy: A notes platform that simplifies the process for sharing web pages, images, email, and others docs

Loom: a video-messaging app that allows users to layer images of themselves onto video presentations and more

MmHmm: a similar app for making quick interactive and sometimes quirky video messages with special effects

Pro-tips

We asked a few early adopters to describe asynchronous work in the wild. (These comments have been lightly edited for space.)

  • At Mmhmm, the leadership team holds asynchronous town halls, says Phil Libin, CEO of Mmhmm (and co-founder of Evernote.) Now, his team assembles presentations on the week’s topics using Mmhmm, incorporating slides or silly effects to emphasize points. “We publish them to our Slack or internal group, and then people watch them either by themselves or in synchronous watch parties,” says Libin. These “meetings” are often watched at twice the speed, making them more engaging, he adds, and the new format elicits thoughtful questions, especially from people too shy to speak at live gatherings.
  • At Doist, CEO Amir Salihefendic explained on the The SaaS revolution podcast, the company once made the mistake of leaning too far into asynchronous conversation and found “it was not a good solution.” They found a sweet spot with about 60% to 70% of work done asynchronously. “You need to layer in meetings. You also need to have channels where you can actually contact people, especially in development,” he said, “if somebody has pushed something and broke everything, you need to have a phone number you can call.”
  • “A big thing that I’ve tried to do is making sure that we’re really effective and clear [in] the way we communicate,” Terry Simpson, a US-based engineer at Nintex, a workflow automation software company, told Quartz. “I know I’ve adapted my style. When I’m communicating with folks, I put 30-second videos together, where I’m describing something that’s very technical, and the video just communicates an extreme amount of detail.” The goal is to avoid back-and-forth questions, which “slows down the process.”

Cheat sheet: Should this conversation be asynchronous?

Have you not seen this colleague for a long time?

Is this a team bonding experience?

Do you want to brainstorm with abandon, asking people to share unfiltered ideas?

➡️  Do these things in-person, in real time.

Are you hoping to bond with a person and build trust?

Is the content of the conversation sensitive?

Do you have some quick, semi-urgent questions about a plan that’s already documented?

➡️  Make it a live conversation, whether in person or on a phone or video call.

Are you making an announcement? Providing instructions? Updating some employees about a decision that affects them? Adding a comment to the work you’re submitting? Asking or answering a question that’s not urgent? Changing a company policy? Explaining a complicated issue?

➡️ A text, audio, or video message should do the trick and will leave a record for other workers to access.

Keep learning

Sound off

How much work do you wish your team did asynchronously?

As little as possible

Under half

More than half

All of it

In last week’s poll about nascent energy sources, 35% of you said green hydrogen is the future.

Have a great week,

—Lila MacLellan, Quartz at Work senior reporter (dreams of working asynchronously from Tofino, Canada)

One 📩  thing

Wondering what a video message looks like? Check out this “loom” by former Quartz data editor Dan Kopf.

Screenshot of video message about pivot tables
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