You’ve heard of remote and hybrid work, but what about asynchronous work? Chances are you already work this way at least part of the time, but it’s set to become a more significant part of the “future of work” conversation in 2022 and beyond.
Below we’ll look at what counts as asynchronous work, how it benefits workers, teams, and employers, and some of the challenges we all face in trying to adapt to new and more efficient ways of doing our jobs.
What is asynchronous work?
It’s easier to understand asynchronous work if you consider what traditional, synchronous work expects of us. The latter refers to employees who work together simultaneously and have real-time communication. While we’ve always assumed it’s the ideal way to collaborate, synchronous work also requires workers to be “on” at the same time as their colleagues. Even with remote workers and remote teams, work can still be synchronous if we expect immediate replies to emails, phone calls, or Slack messages.
Asynchronous work (also called “async work”) is an approach that allows employees to work mainly on their schedules rather than in a specific timeframe like 9-5. They don’t need to be together in the same room or communicate in real-time with team members. Async work can take place inside or outside the office. The point is that it doesn’t impose artificial deadlines or expectations that interfere with productivity.
Benefits of asynchronous work
The majority of workers have done asynchronous work in the past. But with more deliberate planning to encourage this type of work, the benefits to workers and employees are compounded.
The benefits of async work include:
On asynchronous teams, workers are able to do their jobs during the hours they feel most productive or have the most time for concentration. The goal is to be maximally efficient because no one is forced to clock into their jobs when they’re not ready to work.
On a typical day, studies show that American workers are interrupted around seven times every hour (or 56 times a day) by things like coworkers, emails, and meetings. That takes a significant toll on productivity, especially since 80% of those interruptions are trivial, and it takes the average person 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back into full concentration mode. This costs workers 6 hours a day and the U.S. economy around $588 billion a year. An aysnc approach lets employees work when they’re most capable, and they know they can put interruptions aside. Allowing a longer timeframe to reply to work messages (whether that’s 4, 8, or 24 hours) also reins in bosses and coworkers who must deliberately choose to interrupt.
Async work isn’t always ideal for teams, but stopping to consider the benefits of this new type of collaboration helps illuminate some of the toxic parts of work culture. For example, we’ve all worked in teams where one person takes over during ideation, drowning out the voices of others. Equally, some members simply don’t pull their weight. An asynchronous approach addresses these issues in two ways:
- It requires thoughtful, succinct, clear forms of communication (whether via company software, Google Docs, Slack, etc.). Teams and managers can see precisely where an idea originated and who is not contributing to the project.
- This is further beneficial because it allows introverts and people with conflicting personalities (but whose diverse input is crucial) to communicate ideas and concerns to the group without fear or interruption.
Asynchronous work is designed to bring out the best in everyone. It can also lessen the stress and burnout workers feel. In the U.S., 83% of workers suffer from work-related stress, and businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result. Expecting employees to be constantly and immediately available (during the workday and on weekends) or get their work done with frequent interruptions in the name of collaboration and communication was never a viable strategy.
The challenges of async work
Asynchronous work isn’t applicable in every workplace or job, for example, in the service industry or construction. There are also challenges and growing pains to expect when deliberately adopting an async approach. And even though there are plenty of benefits, some of them can be double-edged swords.
The challenges of async work include:
The burden of transparency
While concise, deliberate communication and the ability to attribute ideas to the original owner sounds ideal, this form of communication can stifle off-the-cuff, innovative thinking that people may not want to put into writing. In addition, employees are being tracked more than ever, and async work is maximally transparent. Assessing productivity based on these group documents and chats may not provide the whole picture of someone’s contribution. Tasks may also take longer if the group is expected to reply to each contribution, and the decision-making process can slow down.
The need to adjust expectations
New ways of working require the entire team to adjust their expectations and unlearn old habits. This can be problematic when generational issues are added to the mix and the technology necessary to facilitate async work doesn’t come naturally to everyone. A manager who insists that an issue necessitates a group meeting with little warning can undo some of the benefits. This type of collaboration makes communication skills more critical than ever, so it will take people whose written communication skills longer to adjust.
In addition, async workers need to establish and respect boundaries. If employees are sending messages at all hours of the day because they are on their own work schedules, everyone needs to adjust their instinct to look at or respond to the message. Feeling this pressure can undo the benefits of async work and lead to more burnout. We proved this when studies of remote work during the pandemic found that people were working longer hours.
The necessity of trust
Employers need to trust their employees to get the work done and be prepared to measure productivity and success in results, not the exact number of hours worked. That can be a tough adjustment, especially if employers believe that everyone should be tied to their desk for at least 8 hours a day, regardless of whether or not they’re being productive.
Should you adopt an async environment?
One mistake workers and employers tend to make is blindly adopting new ways of work to “keep up with the times” rather than considering whether new trends fit with their priorities. Employers should consider if this strategy will do more harm than good to workers, whether they can adjust their expectations, and if they can afford to put new tools in place to facilitate new methods of communication. But they should also recognize that adjusting expectations may improve their bottom line, help them retain workers, and help employees build new communication skills.
Asynchronous work isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. But it may be worth a try, especially since there’s nothing stopping employers from reserving certain hours or days of the week for synchronous work to eliminate some of the challenges of adopting this new model.
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