I’ve been working remotely for over a decade – well before the days of tools like Slack or Zoom. In some ways, it was easier back then: you worked from wherever you were and had the space to manage your workload however you wanted. If you desired to go hardcore creative mode at night, sleep in, then leisurely read fiction over brunch, you could.
Now, in the age of the “green dot” or “presence prison,” as Jason Fried calls it, working remotely can be more suffocating than in-person work. The freedom that we worked hard to create — escaping the 9-to-5 — has now turned into constant monitoring, with the expectation that we are on, accessible, productive, and communicative 24/7.
I see this in job positions for remote roles. Companies frequently champion remote, proudly advertising their flexible cultures to only then list that candidates must be based within 60 minutes of Pacific Time Zone, that the hours are set, and standup is at 8:30am daily. One of the benefits of remote work is that it brings the world closer together and creates a level-playing field for the world’s best talent. Whether you were in Bengaluru or Berlin, you could still work with a VC-backed, cash-rich startup in San Francisco earning a solid hourly rate. If remote slowly turns into a way of working in real-time with frequent face-time, we will see less of this.
And let’s not forget trust: the crux of remote culture. Companies create tools that automatically record your screen at intervals to show management or clients you’re delivering. I founded a freelance marketplace called CloudPeeps and not recording your screen, as Upwork does, is one way we attract a different caliber of indie professional.
You can have more freedom in an office. From my beige cubicle at one of my first roles, I witnessed a colleague plan a wedding over the course of many months, including numerous calls to vendors and 20 tabs open for research. Most of the team was none the wiser – this wouldn’t be the case with remote today.
At the heart of this friction is the demand for real-time, synchronous communication. If we champion asynchronous as the heart of remote, what does the future of remote look like?
What Is Asynchronous Communication?
Typically, synchronous communication happens in real-time, where the parties are in-sync: processing and responding to messages immediately. This could be a phone call, a Slack message, or a traditional meeting.
On the other hand, asynchronous communication allows a message to be transferred and received as one’s schedule permits. Asynchronous communication could be an email, writing notes in a task management app, or leaving a voice message for someone to listen to when they have the chance. Each method has its pros and cons.
The Benefits of Asynchronous
When the need to communicate in real-time is lessened, there are a host of benefits. You can collaborate across wider geographies and different time zones, you can cater to various types of working schedules (e.g. the night owl versus the early bird), diverse personalities (e.g. introverts versus extroverts), and have greater flexibility in communication styles.
The attention economy
When I started using Slack in 2014 for my company, I loved it. We ran internal team communication on Slack and left email for external queries. My once-crazy inbox started becoming more manageable, and getting to inbox zero was frequently achievable. It seemed like the future was here and remote work was catapulted into the mainstream.
Fast forward a few years when things started to reverse. I dreaded opening Slack in the morning: “It starts,” I’d breathe as I clicked on the red-notification-stamped colorful logo, bracing myself for the bombardment of messages from all over the world. Forget participating in additional Slack channels and groups – managing one team was enough. At least if you’re a manager in a physical office you can close the door. With Slack, my virtual office was open 24/7 and anyone could contact me whenever. As a startup founder, you are still a maker as well as a manager, so focus time for deep thinking and work is key. While you can encourage people to use messaging apps mindfully, there is still an expectation that responses need to happen in real-time.
In Doist’s post on asynchronous communication, they discuss Harvard Business Review’s article on “Collaborative Overload”. In the past two decades, the time employees spend on collaboration has increased by 50%. Workers spend a full 80% of their workday communicating with their team, and apparently, the average Slack users sends 200 messages a day.
Collaboration and productivity don’t go in hand, and arguably, they are each other’s worst enemy. To be productive you need large stretches of time that can be used for deep, focused work. Allowing workers to nurse their own attention and attribute it at their will and leisure is one way to build up this time.
Meetings of the future
It’s often said that ‘meetings are toxic’, and this is discussed in Basecamp’s chapter of the same name from Getting Real (free PDF download). One of the biggest problems with meetings is the real-time aspect of them: not only do they break your working time into smaller chunks, and limit focused time – they also reward certain types of thinkers and communication styles. If you do have synchronous meetings, Basecamp recommends:
- Sticking to 30 minutes (or less), setting a timer and having a hardstop when it rings;
- Inviting as few people as possible; and
- Never having a meeting without a clear agenda.
So, what do meetings look like if they aren’t synchronous? Enter “self-documented meetings”. Buffer, a well-regarded all-remote company with 82 employees, discusses this phenomenon in their asynchronous meetings post. They experimented in various styles of asynchronous meetings, including using tools like Loom to record asynchronous videos and Carrot for team discussions, to then end up using Threads.
“We wanted an option to complement Slack that was much calmer, more timezone inclusive, and built for thoughtful, longer-form conversations and decision-making,” states Buffer Android developer Victoria Gonda.
The beauty of self-documented meetings is that the task of taking notes doesn’t fall to just one person, which may have traditionally been female workers. You can also consume the information at your own pace – scanning less-relevant notes and diving into areas you want to understand further or get more involved in. Buffer believes it’s a way to respect everyone’s time.
Of course, having well-documented meetings aids in information access across organizations, working particularly well with companies practising cultural values of ‘radical transparency’ as Buffer does.
It’s also a reason why the power of written communication, and excelling at it, is more important than ever. Gone are the days of the loudest person in the room dominating meetings – with asynchronous communication, more voices can take up space. This leads to inclusive environments.
In Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking she writes: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
In asynchronous team environments, the fastest thinker or quickest talker isn’t the only person to be heard. Allowing introverts or less-vocal team members the chance to digest and put together their thoughts before responding helps them be heard.
After all, is someone’s real-time response their best? Reviewing the data, researching further, and preparing a well-crafted response nurtures a better outcome.
Asynchronous communication also aids in collaboration across cultures, languages, and borders. While the internet has been English-language led to date, there are only more and more workers from non-English speaking countries coming online and working globally. The talent field is opening up.
Communicating asynchronously is not only brilliant for working across multiple time zones – it also allows non-English speakers more space and time to articulate their thoughts and have a seat at the virtual table.
You only have to open LinkedIn for a split second these days to view another article or post about work-life balance. Corporations have been touting work-life balance as perks for decades, yet remote companies are the ones walking the talk.
In asynchronous remote companies, the worker is responsible for managing their working hours and schedule. If they need to go to the doctor’s or pick their kids up from school, they can. They don’t have to take sick or personal leave for standard appointments and aren’t penalized for having family commitments since contribution is based on output and impact, not the number of hours sat at a desk.
One of my favourite stories to share about my time working in offices is how people spent the first hour of the working day. I’d watch colleagues make coffee and toast, maximizing the water cooler talk. Meanwhile, I’d get in on the dot, wheel out my swivel chair and start work immediately. If kombucha on tap, table tennis tables, and/or flex days are the company perks of today, asynchronous remote work is the perk of the future.
The Downsides of Asynchronous
So, if the future of work is one where we are responsible for our own time and energy management, where does that leave us in terms of personal accountability?
Edward Harran, a long-term remote worker and expert on the study of time, has been testing a tool called Focusmate. The community exists to stop procrastination with a virtual coworking-like experience to help get things done. The company studied the science behind productivity and found social pressure was an important factor in delivering on tasks.
“Social pressure is the application of heightened demands on oneself when in the presence of others, in theory so as to fulfill certain implicit and explicit expectations and achieve social acceptance.” On Focusmate, Eddie gets matched with a stranger, they each state their specific goal for the session, work solo together for 50 minutes, and then discuss their outcomes. If working alongside each other has an impact on accountability, then it’s certainly a plus for synchronous work.
Another downside of not only asynchronous communication but also remote work is the isolation factor. Forget the hottest remote work communication or collaboration tool: none help if you’re feeling lonely in your day-to-day life.
One of the ways remote teams combat this is to provide team offsites and/or memberships to local coworking spaces. Outsite is a company founded in 2015 that helps companies host team retreats in 18 spaces all around the world. Fully distributed companies and even colocated companies like Google bring workers together for retreats to strengthen team bonds through in-person activities.
As an indie founder who left Silicon Valley to move to a little country town, I spent a chunk of time working at a coworking space this year in a bid to find a new local tribe. Based in Melbourne, One Roof is a space geared towards female founders. Its own founder Sheree Rubinstein sees many members join the space to combat the isolation of remote work.
She states: “A place to work is not enough in and of itself. Remote workers want to meet people, build their professional network, attend events, learn, upskill and be inspired. This is the sweet spot of coworking. In a good coworking space there will be a dedicated team to greet you, ensure you feel comfortable, keep you up to date with events and gatherings and introduce you to people who can support you.”
While I still worked asynchronously, I found travelling to a dedicated space very helpful for connection and support – and plus, I listened to many hours of podcasts on the train to and fro.
While there are some remote teams, such as InVision and GitLab, with thousands of remote workers, we still haven’t seen remote – and asynchronous – scale to the world’s largest organizations and Fortune 500 companies. There have also been examples of companies retiring work from home policies, as Yahoo infamously did. Therefore, we still need data and case studies for how asynchronous communication functions on scale.
In small teams with fresh hires, you can pretty much guarantee most workers are contributing and ‘showing up’. Employees that have mentally checked out, are unreliable, or aren’t on top of their workload can have an impact on the effectiveness of asynchronous. If you have a blocker or workplace conflict, it can be easier to resolve these in real-time.
While there are still limitations with asynchronous communication and remote work in general, I believe we will see a huge shift to true freedom and flexibility with evolving work methods and tools. Asynchronous will be the cornerstone of this change.