Over the past weeks, a lot of data about hybrid remote work has shown that work from home is here to stay, often for 2-3 days per week.
In the wake of the Zoom return to office debate, Scoop released new numbers showing that we’ve reached office day equilibrium, while Kastle data shows that office swipes are leveling off at about 50% of what we were used to.
What’s discussed less than the where, however, is the when.
But new research we’re about to release shows that flexibility in when to work is the next frontier for hybrid and remote employees.
A study we conducted reveals that one in two hybrid and remote employees believe greater flexibility in working hours could substantially improve their work.
Surprisingly, even people who mostly work in-office would like more flexibility in when to work (48%.)
More flexibility in where and when to work aligns with the human need for autonomy at work – the ability to take control and influence the work experience.
Being able to tailor work to our lives rather than vice versa through asynchronous work greatly contributes to our enjoyment of work.
For teams and companies, this means higher engagement, productivity, and retention.
Lynda Gratton, a management professor at London Business School, addressed the topic over two years ago in her HBR article “How to do Hybrid Right”:
Place is the axis getting the most attention. Millions of workers around the world this year have made a sudden shift. A shift from being place-constrained (working in the office) to being place-unconstrained. Less noticed is the shift many have also made along the time axis. Meaning from being time-constrained (working synchronously with others) to being time-unconstrained. – Lynda Gratton, London Business School
Now that we have fully embraced hybrid work, is it time to discuss and implement the next frontier, asynchronous work?
I think so, because the worst outcome is that we copy everything we did to an online environment and think it will work. It won’t. As GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij said in a recent interview with McKinsey: “Working remotely is easy. The challenge is working asynchronously.”
Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
Synchronous communication requires immediate response whereas asynchronous communication doesn't require real-time interaction. It can be useful in brainstorming, but requires advance planning.
Alternative methods like email, Slack, or Google Docs facilitate productive asynchronous communication. It leads to more thoughtful responses & creates records of conversations making it valuable for long-term projects. Lastly, it's vital for remote workers in different time zones.
What is asynchronous work?
Before we dive into the what and how of asynchronous “async” work, let’s take a step back and look into this new concept to master as you level up your remote leadership.
A staple for remote and remote-first companies, asynchronous work is an approach in which individuals collaborate and complete tasks on their own schedules rather than in real time.
In other words, you decide when to work instead of being captive of immediate responses and rigid schedules.
Asynchronous work is where you can decide when you do which task.
Due to the rise in hybrid and remote working models and the need to find better ways of remote collaboration, the async concept is gaining momentum.
Take TechSmith, the creator of screen capture products like Snagit.
With virtual meeting overload causing "Zoom fatigue" after COVID, the company opted for a month-long experiment, pausing traditional meetings in favor of asynchronous work.
This move led to a 15% boost in productivity and 85% employee interest in exploring asynchronous communication further.
What I found interesting is that TechSmith's approach prioritized people, empowering teams to decide work processes individually rather than dictating at a company level.
Benefits of Asynchronous Work – Why People Love to Work on Their Own Schedule
Beyond employees’ desires, I predict asynchronous will gain momentum for many other benefits, boosting the already positive effect of hybrid and remote schedules (see: 100+ Remote Work Statistics.) Some of those include:
Autonomy and Empowerment
One of the cornerstone benefits of asynchronous work is its autonomy.
By letting team members operate on their schedules, you can empower them to achieve results in ways that suit their lives. As I wrote before, autonomy refers to the level of independence in your work.
“If you have autonomy, you can make decisions, take risks, and exercise judgment without constant supervision. According to self-determination theory, autonomy is one of three basic psychological needs contributing to well-being.”
This is why autonomy at work creates loyalty, retention, and high-quality output.
Efficiency, Productivity, Performance
Async allows people to align work to be done with their personal moments of peak productivity and creativity.
For example, an early bird like me would love to get a ton of work out of the way before others even wake up. The night owl may write that report at 11 p.m. Does it make sense for them to either wake up early or work late and “present for work?” I think not.
Asynchronous work also drives efficiency by enabling individuals to act even when missing key elements. The "default to action" mindset is integral here; individuals can progress when tasks aren't fully planned, decision-makers are absent, or other dependencies are unresolved.
Global Hiring Inclusivity Across Time Zones
According to research from Remote, 44% of companies are currently increasing their international hiring, meaning more people working together across more time zones, making it harder to have consistent ‘office hours.’
One of the most significant advantages of asynchronous work is its ability to transcend time zones.
Traditional synchronous work hours can be a logistical nightmare for globally dispersed teams. By embracing asynchronous practices, you can eliminate these constraints and foster a more globally inclusive environment.
As ex-Googler Kenzo Fong mentions in FastCompany: “With an asynchronous work style, work becomes more like a relay race where one could set tasks and deadlines for the other without the expectation to respond right away. Work gets done on time, people are less stressed, and it allows for a wider talent pool.”
Stress Reduction and Mental Wellbeing
The constant expectation of immediate responses during working hours contributes to stress. Asynchronous work eliminates this pressure, allowing team members to disconnect without fearing that they're failing to respond in real time.
In an interview with Jeff Frick, McKinsey workplace guru Phil Kirschner shared that giving people flexibility in when to work increases their perception of the company and culture.
Phil summarizes that McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index research shows that employees feel 1.5x more positive about their work environment and culture when they have flexibility in where and when they work, and 3.5x more employees feel positive when their teams clearly define norms for when, where, and how work will be done.
The study found a similar escalation of positive outcomes regarding innovation, motivation, and strategic direction. This led McKinsey to the conclusion that establishing new ways of working is essential for achieving high-performing organizational health.
Implementing Asynchronous Workflows
While we all love that the pandemic drove remote work into the spotlight, most companies transplanted office habits and schedules online without taking this opportunity to rethink work practices.
“During the pandemic, most organizations got no further than level two of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s five levels of distributed teams framework. Instead of back-to-back meetings, people got back-to-back Zoom calls. Instead of physical interruptions, they got more interruptions via Slack or Teams.” – Steve Glaveski
I asked Denise Brouder, the Founder and Head of Data and Insights at SWAYworkplace, whose mission is to “level the playing field through the power of hybrid,” about how managers can tap into the power of async.
Denise shared that managers should “Define it, articulate async’s value to team performance, demonstrate how the team transitions tasks from sync to async, role-model the behaviors, embed and incentivize the use of async in performance evaluations, and then defend its use to outside stakeholders.”
Her advice indicates that asynchronous work isn't a silver bullet for all situations. Its success depends on strategic implementation, emphasizing specific standards of communication and documentation.
Transitioning to an asynchronous mindset requires a shift in how organizations approach communication and collaboration, for example:
Iterative Progress: Focus on incremental improvements and acknowledge that perfection isn't the goal. Individuals can make meaningful strides by iteratively advancing projects while leaving room for adjustment.
Progress Over Perfection: Cultivate a culture that values progress over perfection. Encourage sharing incomplete work and unfinished projects. This promotes innovation, collaboration, and a willingness to adapt.
Strong Documentation: Robust documentation is central to successful asynchronous communication. Establish standardized documentation methods and make it a cornerstone of your workflow. Transparency empowers team members to work at their own pace without impeding colleagues' progress.
In the McKinsey interview, GitLab CEO Sid Sijbrandij explained how they have done this successfully:
Within GitLab, our handbook, which is more than 2,700 web pages and available to the public, is a big part of what enables us to work asynchronously. When an employee has a question, they can almost always find the answer documented in our handbook without having to tap someone on the shoulder. The “handbook first” system is embedded in the way we work. Every change must first be documented in the handbook, and all communications about the change include a link back to the handbook. We work together to make sure it is always up to date. For example, our Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer is responsible for maintaining the marketing section, though anyone can propose edits as needed.”
Choosing the Right Tools: Selecting appropriate tools is crucial. Centralize communications in a single platform, reducing the risk of scattered information.
Platforms like Microsoft Teams, Google Drive, and Dropbox Spaces facilitate asynchronous collaboration and help maintain clarity, while project management platforms like Monday.com, Trello, Asana, Wrike, and ClickUp help keep an overview of the work to be done without digging into email and messaging apps.
Mitigating Time Zone Bias: Strive to eliminate time zone bias. Rotate company-wide meetings to accommodate different time zones and consider recording sessions for later viewing. Balancing synchronous and asynchronous interactions ensures a diverse and inclusive environment.
But even following these tips won’t make for a successful implementation if there isn’t broad buy-in and conviction that async is where it’s at.
As Darren Murph, formerly Head of Remote at Gitlab, says in an interview with a16z, async and its principles must be embedded deep into a company’s culture to succeed. For Gitlab, that even meant making it part of their core values.
Companies practicing asynchronous work
Famous pioneers of asynchronous work include Auttomatic, Buffer, and Gitlab. Build Remote compiled a great list of these companies and the stories of why they chose to go async. Some helpful references include:
- Almanac: “Our society's way of working is broken. Constant meetings, outmoded communication workflows, and dysfunctional processes have led to distraction, exhaustion, and burnout.”
- Gumroad: “Going fully remote was nice, but the real benefit was in going fully asynchronous.”
- Doist: “While I think remote work is the future, I believe that asynchronous communication is an even more important factor in team productivity, whether your team is remote or not. Not only does async produce the best work results, but it also lets people do more meaningful work and live freer, more fulfilled lives."
The common thread across why and how most of these companies have embedded async is a deep belief that work is better when people have more control over not only where but also when they work.
Dipping your toes in the async water
Of course, async pioneers and others who have seen async benefits first-hand would say it’s time to go fully async.
But while you may not be there yet, you can benefit from asynchronous work in smaller doses.
One way is async days. On non-office days, must your hybrid team show up simultaneously and be available at key office hours, as detailed in your hybrid working policy? This may be an opportunity to test asynchronous work – letting people choose their own hours on one or more days per week.
Another way is to set core working hours. Core working hours are a great way to provide more flexibility in people's work by only requiring them to be available to the team during certain hours. This is especially true for global teams, where the overlap is relatively small due to time zones. Set one or more core collaboration hours on all or select days, and let people personalize the rest.
Either way, a great place to start is by knowing where you currently stand.
Iwo Szapar and the team at the Remote-First Institute created “Mentor AI” to give custom recommendations based on specific teams and challenges. They launched it with a free Async Communication test, which I found very insightful.
Is The Future of Work Asynchronous?
So, is the future of work asynchronous? I believe so.
Let’s sum up:
Asynchronous work is your people’s #1 wish.
It improves your culture and engagement.
It’s a working model for international companies.
Asynchronous work isn't a fad; it's an evolution in how work is approached.
While asynchronous work may have its challenges (communication issues, overwhelmed team members (hello Slack notifications!), working hour expectations, especially across time zones, and a lack of a sense of team when you rarely ‘speak’ or see each other), as we saw with embracing hybrid and remote, nothing is impossible.
Reaping the benefits can start as you say goodbye to your rigid schedule!