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Is “async” — asynchronous work — anything more than a buzzword? After all, email, the ultimate async tool, has been the most popular form of business communication for 20 years. So, why is everyone suddenly talking about async work? In short, the normalization of remote work means we have been forced to think more deeply about our working styles than ever before. Pandemic-inspired “Zoom fatigue” has got us all questioning whether there is an alternative to the synchronous work orthodoxy.
What do we mean by async work?
Async work is a working style in which work communication need not occur in real-time. There is no expectation that team members will immediately “jump on a call” to solve a problem. The benefits are clear: It facilitates flexible working hours, better enables work across international time zones and often allows team members to focus better.
What async doesn’t mean is fewer deadlines, no calls and no team meetings. In most fields of work, there are occasions when everyone needs to communicate face-to-face or voice-to-voice in real-time. Async and synchronous work are better seen as two ends of the same spectrum, rather than completely distinct working models.
Within our company, we have operated effectively with both synchronous and async styles for different business units. Below, I offer five tips based on my own experience of managing async work:
Related: How to Create an Asynchronous Work Culture
1. Apply the async model selectively
The async working model is probably not appropriate for every part of your business. For example, we would never apply async to our customer care team. When our customers have problems, those problems are time-sensitive and need addressing immediately. It won’t do for team members to only read a customer query three hours after receiving the message.
The key is applying async strategically and selectively: Async has been fantastic for our international marketing team. Once-a-week team meetings are sufficient for coordinating our social media, advertising and web content while leaving space for the “deep work” that can suit those tasks — it’s difficult to write a technical white paper, for example, with constant distractions.
2. Implement an async work strategy
Effective async work requires means having an intentional async strategy in place. This that everyone knows what is expected of ensures them in a working style that may be unfamiliar. This should include:
Communication requirements: For example, it might be best to mandate that communication only occurs through designated channels. If Slack is the designated channel, but workers can also form WhatsApp groups, it becomes more difficult to enforce the async model.
A “designated meetings only” requirement: As mentioned earlier, zero meetings is usually an unrealistic goal for an async workflow. But a once-per-week or once-per-fortnight targeted team meeting can be effective where agendas, time limits, minutes and follow-ups are mandated. Outside those designated meetings, there should be no expectation that meetings occur.
Related: How To Manage an Asynchronous Work Flow
3. Optimize your communications tools for async
It is best to apply different tech solutions to the async and the sync working parts of the business. Most obviously, team video calls (whether on Zoom, Skype or another app) need to be kept to a minimum in the async working style. Instead, team members need to regularly use async tools like Loom for video, Yac for voice messaging and Slack or Teams for messaging.
Less obviously, perhaps, consistent rules need to be applied to how those apps are used: You can’t integrate Slack into async work if there is a (perhaps unspoken) expectation that teammates will be constantly checking Slack throughout the day and responding to messages .
It’s better to have a rule about how quickly people need to respond to messages (eg, twice per day) and then allow (or even encourage!) the team to keep notifications muted the rest of the time.
4. Prioritize project tools
Async work can only be truly successful if there is visibility across the team for key deadlines and if tasks are appropriately assigned. ClickUp, Asana and Monday are all effective at enforcing team accountability for deadlines.
A special shout out to ClickUp’s “watcher” feature. I have found this particularly useful for giving team members oversight of tasks they are not directly participating in. This can be more effective (and less boring) than having to hear about the actions of other team members in a Zoom meeting.
Related: Why 2022 Is All About Asynchronous Communication
5. Ensure effective documentation
Async doesn’t work without effective documentation. Everyone needs to know where to find relevant information, that the information is trustworthy, and that appropriate accessibility protocols are applied.
This means having a central “knowledge base” with an organized and accessible file structure. This could be maintained through simple tools like Google Drive, OneDrive and Dropbox — or more premium tools like Confluence.
Async is an effective approach for some types of work, but it has to be managed effectively. To do this, I recommend that async work is only applied selectively, that a robust async strategy is put in place and that the tech stack is optimized. It’s also important that async work is supported by the right project tools and comprehensive documentation.