December 6, 2023

Leslie is excited to start her new remote job. Specifically, she was looking for a remote opportunity so she could have work flexibility—she wants to start her days early, take a long lunch to pick up her daughter from school, and finish work late in the afternoon.

But in three weeks, he is struggling with his decision. She is expected to “always” support and meet colleagues across time zones. He barely has time to pick up his daughter, let alone spend any quality time. And he’s working longer than ever. What now?

Leslie realizes that what she wanted wasn’t telecommuting, but asynchronous work.

Both may sound similar. But as Leslie found out, simply using a team remote does not guarantee flexibility or work-life balance. Asynchronous work is often a better bet for companies that want to support employees working on different schedules.

So how exactly does asynchronous work differ from remote work? And how do you make sure you’re doing one and not the other?

What asynchronous work looks like

Asynchronous work does not just mean working in different places. It also means doing work in different timelines without real-time interactions.

Many people have misconceptions about asynchronous work. It’s business as usual, but without all the meetings, right?

Not quite.

Let’s take a look at some myths about asynchronous work to understand what it is—and what it isn’t.

Could asynchronous work… work?  Tips to set your teams up for success

Myth: Asynchronous work means chatting on Slack vs. in a live meeting.

Reality: Async means that communication does not take place in real time. Even if the company uses messaging apps, they do not work asynchronously if an immediate response is generally expected. Working asynchronously means sharing information and having a time lag between responses.

Myth: Asynchronous work kills collaboration.

Reality: A pause between answers can encourage strong group thinking. Employees are still trading ideas and coming up with solutions. Just not in real time. The delay between posts also gives people more time to process information than when quick decisions are expected, which leads to more thoughtful responses and can lead to more effective solutions.

Myth: Asynchronous work gives you less control over the work.

Reality: Documentation creates greater transparency. Decisions and ideas previously discussed in meetings are now written down for easy reference and recall. Better documentation lets you see exactly what’s going on with any project. It also helps in better decision making and faster onboarding.

Myth: Async reduces productivity.

Reality: People are more productive without interruption. Context switching interrupts effective work and leaves employees stressed and overwhelmed. When people don’t feel pressured to break up their day by checking and responding to messages, they are able to focus for longer periods of time.

Myth: Employees are less engaged when they work asynchronously.

Reality: Asynchronous work can lead to greater inclusion. People don’t always talk in groups—not even in groups virtual meeting. Often the loudest voice is the one that gets attention. Offline communication levels the playing field so everyone has a chance to be heard.

Asynchronous work offers many advantages. However, there are also obstacles that you need to be aware of if you want to make it work in your organization.

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Possible obstacles for asynchronous employees

Moving directly from traditional or even remote work to asynchronous work without adjusting policies or training employees can cause problems. For example, an asynchronous worker might encounter the following:

  • Blurred boundaries between work and personal life: When managers are not fully attuned to asynchronous communication, there can be pressure to respond immediately. Employees in different time zones end up working after hours just to keep up.
  • Lack of trust: People who work different schedules have a more challenging time building strong team relationships. Without opportunities for real-time collaboration and informal conversations, employees may not develop the trust they need to delegate tasks and projects with confidence.
  • Bad communication: In the one-way communication that occurs with asynchronous work, it can be easy to misinterpret meaning.
  • Weak company culture: Working completely asynchronously can make employees feel disconnected from their coworkers and company.

If you want to succeed with an asynchronous work model, you need to have a plan in place to overcome these challenges before you begin.

Could asynchronous work… work?  Tips to set your teams up for success

5 tips to switch to asynchronous mode

Changing the way employees work means abandoning old habits. And that takes time and training. Here are five tips to help you avoid the pitfalls mentioned above when you move your team to asynchronous work.

1. Start slow

This is the place “it takes time” comes the aspect of changing working styles. Immediate changes can leave people disoriented and make tasks more likely to fall through the cracks. Help people gain confidence in asynchronous work by gradually implementing it.

For example, start “no meeting Wednesdays” to get employees used to large blocks of time to work and wait for questions to be answered.

Think about introducing new communication tools one by one (eg getting people to learn how to use Slack before you get people to use video messaging tools like Loom). This allows people to slowly sort out which kind of communication is best for which types of information.

2. Create clear sources of help

Eliminate feelings of isolation and frustration by ensuring that every asynchronous employee knows where to turn when they need help.

For example, create documentation and FAQs people have access when they have questions about completing a task.

For more complex issues, give them instructions on who to contact (along with contact details) for technical support, HR issues or subject matter expertise.

3. Establish clear policies and procedures

Reduce uncertainty and burnout by defining in advance what is expected of people in the new work model. Be clear about things like when people are expected to be available, how quickly they should respond to certain types of communication, and what platforms to use for each.

Set crystal clear expectations for how projects move through your production process and how tasks are handed off.

For example, if you use project management software, set it up to notify people of every task and deadline they’ve been assigned. Clarify how employees should handle their tasks and who they should notify to move it to the next steps.

4. Offer communication training

Avoid communication barriers by teaching people how to use asynchronous communication effectively. This may mean training on the technical aspects of using your various communication tools.

It can also mean that they improve on the soft skills they need to help them effectively. This can include courses on things like general communication, email and virtual communication etiquette, and effective listening.

Use your LMS to make training available to all your employees, no matter where (or when) they go through it.

5. Give people the skills to maintain a work-life balance

Async employees need strong discipline and organizational skills. Help prevent stress by training them in skills to manage their workload. This may include work skills such as time management and productivity.

It can also be helpful to teach people how to protect their own well-being. Consider including courses on topics such as mindfulness and work/life balance to prevent employees from getting burned.

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To make async (or any work model) work for you

Just like working remotely or working in an office, asynchronous work may not suit everyone. Imagine Leslie moving from our opening example to a completely remote company where everyone works asynchronously.

She may find the flexibility she was hoping for, but she may also realize she misses the daily interaction and instant brainstorming she had with her office job.

Anyway, not every work arrangement will work for every company. But whether you choose a hybrid, remote, or asynchronous work model, you can set your employees up for success by considering potential pitfalls and creating plans to help avoid them.

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