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Asynchronous work is hugely misunderstood

published6 months ago
5 min read

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What if I told you there was a work approach that allowed you to have fewer meetings, solved your time zone issues, and allowed you to get more done uninterrupted? This is the magic of asynchronous work.

While you may have heard this term floating around, today I want to break down exactly what it means, call out some misconceptions, and explain how you can use asynchronous work to have a better work experience.

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What Is Synchronous Work?

Let me start by saying synchronous work isn't bad. It's probably something you're very familiar with and is a valuable approach for certain activities.

Synchronous work happens in real-time. It requires team members to be present and working on the same thing at the same moment in the same place. Examples include:

  • In-person meetings
  • Video/voice calls
  • Messaging where you expect an immediate response

By the way, it's important to point out that "place" does not just refer to physical locations. It's also Zoom meetings, being on Slack at the same time, or even a collaborative Google Doc.

Synchronous Work Benefits

The 2 key benefits of synchronous work are speed and connection. Speed because you can get an answer instantly since everyone is there and available. Connection because people connect best when they're creating experiences together.

When synchronous work is used for relationship-building or for moments where you need a quick answer, then it's being used appropriately. Work activities that should ideally happen in real-time include:

  • Performance reviews
  • Final decision-making
  • Urgent situations
  • Hype calls
  • Casual hangouts
  • Celebrations

When used correctly, synchronous work is great! However, the current approach for most people is to use it by default. This is exhausting, inefficient, and unsustainable.

Between endless meetings and non-stop Slack and email notifications, it's easy to fall into a reactive state. Instead of tying your priorities to what's important, you're following whatever notifications come your way. So what's the alternative?

What Is Asynchronous Work?

Asynchronous is the opposite of synchronous, so you're working in your own time. Work is happening without requiring team members to be available at the same time and place.

Working asynchronously means having deep work time to create that design or code that feature on your own, and then it being available for other team members to work on and review in their own time. It means having defined workflows that help team members do their work and get unblocked on their own. It means communicating more upfront so there is less back-and-forth.

This approach requires work with clear priorities and expectations and work you can do by yourself.

Asynchronous Work Benefits

Working asynchronously allows you to get things done with fewer interruptions and greater efficiency. This method is fantastic for creative problem solving, thoughtful decision-making, and deep work because it gives time for people to think and the opportunity to work in the way that is best for them.

Along with this, you're setting your team up for success through:

  1. Creating great documentation - Everything previously communicated in meetings is now written down. This makes it much easier to onboard new team members. Also, the documentation provides a reference for decision-making. This makes it easier to learn from mistakes and keep your team from repeating them.
  2. Providing the ability to unblock themselves autonomously - Team members end up with more autonomy and there is less pressure on managers to always be available.
  3. Respecting everyone's time - Instead of forcing people to work hours that they may not work best in (ex. 9-5), you're allowing them to optimize their work schedule. This allows you to hire a diverse, distributed team.
  4. Less task-switching - This gives the team more time for flow. Rather than jumping from call to call without a break to reset, they can batch tasks together.
  5. Refined thinking - Removing decision-making from being in the moment gives everyone a chance to reflect before they communicate. This means when real-time discussions do happen they're less heated and more thoughtful.
  6. Increasing inclusion - Meetings only allow you to hear the loudest person in the room. It's hard for others to jump in with their ideas especially when they are quieter or less senior. Asynchronous work allows everyone to communicate which leads to more creative ideas and better problem-solving.

Misconceptions

Asynchronous work is hugely misunderstood. These are some of the misconceptions I hear shared far too often:

Async-first companies never work synchronously

False. As we've discussed, synchronous work is not bad, it's just overused. Async-first companies understand that most of their work is better done asynchronously. They value each other's time and respect each other's different working styles. They only work synchronously for work activities that should ideally happen in real-time.

Messaging on Slack is working asynchronously

This is only true when policies have made it clear that an immediate response is not required. Also, if you're using the default notification settings of instantly getting notified when any activity occurs, this is synchronous communication. Clear policies and intentional notification settings are required to use Slack in an async-friendly way.

Working asynchronously is slower

When done right, working asynchronously is actually faster. Instead of tasks running one at a time, they can run in parallel. Having a flow where team members pass off the baton allows the business to run 24/7 instead of just 9-5.

Asynchronous work is valuable but misunderstood. Understanding how each approach works is an important first step to using them correctly. Stay tuned for the next issue where I'll show you my personal approach to asynchronous work and provide some baby steps for getting started. For now, consider whether you're currently using the right approach for each type of work.

TLDR

Synchronous work isn’t bad, it’s just overused.

Asynchronous work is valuable but misunderstood.

Understand the benefits and constraints of each approach to optimize your work.
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Quote of the Week

"Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way."
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Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy by Matt Mullenweg

In Other News

What did you think of this issue? What do you hope you'll see in the next one? Feel free to reply to this message or DM me on Twitter @mar15sa.

I truly appreciate you taking the time to read this. Hope you have a lovely day!

Marissa


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