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Remote Work Is Async Work

Where are the gaps in the async capabilities of your team and how are they compromising your ability to work remotely?

woman on phone
woman on phone

Over the last 18 months, we've seen a lot of teams struggling to get remote work right. One gap we've repeatedly spotted is that people tend to focus on the remote bit (cameras, mics, Zoom, quiet spaces) in order to replace the in-person experience. The thing is that the main challenge is not about working remotely, it's about working asynchronously.

The Async Mindset

Asynchronous work is not a new topic but it also isn't something that people generally know how to do well. This is for a simple reason: the ability to work non-interactively with other people to solve problems is not a natural human mode.

Instead of relying on everyone being online at the same time, with async working you communicate in a way that keeps conversations and decision-making open to everyone, no matter where they are located or what time of day they get their work done.

This kind of work requires everyone to channel their inner facilitator and think carefully about the mechanisms of communication as well as the content. In particular, a lot more energy has to be spent anticipating the needs of colleagues who will not be in a position to present those needs in real-time.

It's Not Just About Writing Things Down

In addition, some things are really hard to replace with written communication. For example, something like feedback is best given verbally so you can convey all the nonverbal cues.

Communicating well in writing is a skill most of us learn just in time and then only insofar as we really need it. Fortunately, with a bit of creativity and some modern tools, writing need not be our only choice for async communication. The current uptake of video and audio recordings for this purpose is still comparatively small in the professional world, but it is growing.

An Async Example

One transformative example we've seen is related to decision making. It's a common instinct to couple decision-making with meetings. In practice, a decision involves a number of steps which are often much better suited to an asynchronous, document-centric process...

  1. Start a Google Doc (or other collaborative writing tool) titled with the decision's name.
  2. Outline why the decision is important and list any constraints and success criteria.
  3. Provide the options you've thought of.
  4. Invite the rest of the team to provide comments and add their own options.
  5. Assess the options based on the decision making criteria and perhaps use a scoring/weighting system (like a MCDA).
  6. Keep the document going digitally and provide clear timelines for each step.
  7. If you need to have a dedicated discussion with a sub-group, remember to summarize the results of that discussion in the document.

Spotting Potential Improvements

When we coach individuals and teams who are challenged with remote work, we ask a few key questions to help identify gaps. These include...

  • How would you rate your ability to articulate yourself well in writing? And what could you improve upon?
  • Are you being deliberate about how you organize each of your async comms technologies (email, chat, etc...)?
  • How are you using the range of expressive tools available to you (text, audio, video)? How else could you incorporate these tools?
  • How well are you advocating for the team to have single systems of record for tracking work commitments and progress?
  • Are your team's reference sources reliable, up-to-date, comprehensive and easy to navigate? If not, what could be improved?

These questions work really in one-on-ones and in team retrospectives. Try them out and let us know what emerges.

If you're struggling with the adjustments, it can often be helpful to talk it through with someone who'll ask the right questions and help you problem solve in a sustainable way. If you'd like that kind of support, talk to us about coaching.

You might be interested in our Focus and Flow workshop, designed to help remote and hybrid teams approach collaboration and productivity in a healthy way.

We also provide consulting for teams who need more tailored support.