In the world of hybrid work, there rages a fierce debate about when and where employees should work. There is much less focus, however, on the how. Therein lies the problem. The how is the hardest part to get right, yet the most important.
Organizations are still confused by their legacy thinking. Even when they were forced to move offices online, they took the bad habits that infused their workplaces with them: too many meetings, bad tech infrastructure, threadbare approaches to leadership and the list goes on. While the world of work was rapidly changing, organizations grudgingly shifted where people worked and, in some cases, even when they worked. What was slow in changing was the realization that the way work is done needed to mirror the realities of the rapidly shifting workplace.
Leaders have to improve how their people work. Asynchronous-first communication approach is a must for organizations and leaders who want to thrive in the new challenging world of work, whether their workplace is fully remote, hybrid or in-person.
It is time we stopped hiding behind the safety blanket of the familiar synchronous-first work approach and telling ourselves that having our team members in the same (virtual) room at the same time is what keeps the team functioning properly. Because it isn’t! Mind you, I am a type-A extrovert who thrives on in-person social interactions, but I will be the first to admit that long mindless meetings (in-person or not) are not what makes me productive.
Look, I am not saying that synchronous communication isn’t important. But when it becomes the default, it creates an environment and expectation for constant hyperresponsiveness. Every interaction becomes a fire drill. In contrast, when leaders plan and execute thoughtfully, the door swings open for asynchronous communication to thrive.
Over the past decade, I have watched some of the most successful leaders drastically rebalance the mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication to create a dynamic and healthy environment for their teams. I followed suit, and I learned a lot in the process.
But before diving into that, let’s agree on the definition and importance of asynchronous communication.
What is asynchronous communication?
While synchronous communication is the communication that happens in real-time, with all parties engaged simultaneously (e.g., Zoom call), asynchronous is a style of communication that lets employees organize and perform work according to their own timetable, providing space to strategize and fine-tune deliverables.
Simply put, asynchronous work allows for a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. Synchronous-heavy work can diminish any team’s productivity and create unnecessary anxiety. Despite eliminating commute times during the pandemic, working from home increased the number of working hours, leading to a skewed work-life balance. At the same time, 94% of American workers report experiencing stress in their workplace.
It doesn’t help that select types of synchronous work – such as meetings – consistently dominate employees’ calendars. Bartleby’s Law speculates that meetings waste 80% of the time for 80% of the people in attendance. The average person spends between 35% and 50% of their time in meetings, and executives consider 67% of meetings to be unproductive. Given these statistics, I firmly believe that leaders must champion asynchronous communication to free people’s time to increase their effectiveness and prioritize employees’ mental health.
Reducing meeting times and increasing emphasis on asynchronous communication will allow leaders to break the cycle of hyperresponsiveness, creating space for focused work time and thoughtful engagement, thus increasing effectiveness and collaboration while significantly decreasing stress and anxiety. In addition, this will deepen inclusivity, as not everyone can bring their best selves to the table at the spur of the moment in a synchronous environment.
How to lead with asynchronous-first work
High-performance teams lead with an asynchronous-first approach. They use creativity and technology to create an environment of collaboration and inclusion through asynchronous communication. The leading organizations even revise their cultural norms to adapt to the needs of their workforce.
Here are the five things I recommend you start with.
Establish a “no meetings” day
I have worked in two companies that instituted “no meetings Fridays.” Only one was successful with fully implementing it culturally because it came from the top, and executives led by example. It was the most productive day of the week for my teammates and me. In addition, the same company gave its employees every other Friday off during the summer months. Both contributed to increased levels of productivity and camaraderie among colleagues. This also drove us to prioritize asynchronous collaboration.
Consider and respect time zones and personalities
I’ve spent almost three decades working with people from around the world. Do you know what I found most effective? An asynchronous-first work approach!
With global teams, collaboration works best when it’s not in real-time. Instead of calling a meeting with some people jumping on at 6 am and others at 10 pm, create an environment where everyone can contribute while being their most productive selves.
It’s not just about time differences; you must consider people’s work preferences. For example, I had a high-performing individual on my team who was a night owl; even though he resided in the U.S., he did his best work between 5 pm and 11 pm. In addition, he wasn’t the type of person who felt comfortable providing ideas in real-time (on a call); he needed time to process, research and then form his opinion. Knowing all that, I utilized an asynchronous work approach with him 90% of the time. The result? Exceptional work.
Some of my favorite vendors and agencies are in Asia and Africa. With such vast time differences, we use various communication tools (including WhatsApp) to collaborate. About 98% of this communication is done asynchronously and works seamlessly.
Replace meetings with video updates
Many meetings can be replaced by simply creating a video and sending it to colleagues, stakeholders, or partners. Not only does it cut down on wasted time, but it also increases engagement. Research from TechSmith shows that 48% of employees consider video the most appealing form of communication.
Types of meetings perfect for this approach are:
- “Inform” meetings: status updates, metrics report-out, project demos, new employee introductions, “behind the scenes” project information, monthly leadership updates, etc.
- “Shoulder tap” training: answers to “how-to” questions, showcasing a new tool, outlining a new process, etc.
- Feedback meetings: stakeholder reviews, reporting a defect, congratulating a team member on a job well done, etc.
As a fan of TechSmith products for over a decade, I use Snagit’s all-in-one capture tool to easily record my screen and make simple real-time edits if needed. Snagit gives me a simple way to record my voice and screen (or webcam) simultaneously, resulting in great-looking informational videos that are an absolute breeze to create. Often, it can be as easy as opening a slide deck or a spreadsheet and talking over it while recording. Then, I can easily cut out any parts I don’t like to create a polished finished product to share with the team.
Brainstorm and collaborate via shared documents and visual collaboration platforms
Tools such as SnagIt or InVision for design collaboration, Pastel for website development collaboration, and Miro and Mural for visual brainstorming allow you to collaborate effectively. Along with Google Docs, OneDrive and DropBox, these are just some invaluable tools in the toolbox that simultaneously allow for high productivity and great flexibility.
Set boundaries and use tools to reduce distractions
A survey by The Economist found that 34% of workers lose focus at work because of face-to-face interruptions from colleagues. I suspect this loss of focus is even more substantial in a virtual environment with distractions from tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and text messaging platforms. High-performing teams align with and respect each other’s preferred work patterns. They create “office hours” and use plugins to reduce interruptions and maximize focus periods. They rely on careful planning and asynchronous communication to bring their best selves to work while giving their colleagues space to work in a manner that allows individual team members to be most productive and engaged.
In conclusion, amidst the “Talent War” and the “Great Resignation” movement, how people work will shape the future of your organization. Maximizing productivity without sacrificing employees’ mental health is now a business imperative. An asynchronous-first work approach needs to become a rule, not an exception.