Sylvia gets up at four in the morning, starts work at seven, and ends at two in the afternoon, just in time to pick up her kids from school. Andrew works through the night, when it’s quieter, and ends his work shift just as others are just getting started.
In a traditional work setting, where work is done synchronously, these two would never be on the same team. But in an environment that’s mostly asynchronous, Sylvia and Andrew are not only able to work together (albeit separately), but to do so more calmly and efficiently.
As remote work continues to rise, more and more workers will collaborate as they do: through asynchronous communication and workflows.
What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous?
In (mostly) asynchronous work environments, team members make their own schedules. Their output is more important than the number of hours they work. They communicate with one another using task collaboration tools, documentation, and video messaging.
In fully synchronous workplaces, workdays are linear, and everyone conforms to an agreed-upon schedule. Assiduity and punctuality are sometimes as important as performance and productivity. Communication happens mostly in real-time, through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and meetings.
The downsides of synchronous work
While some synchronicity at work is essential, work environments that are purely synchronous fail to accommodate individual differences, needs, and preferences.
For instance, the standard business schedule favors morning types, while workflows centered around real-time communication put neurodivergent people (those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or another cognitive variation) at a disadvantage.
Cultural differences, and differences in lifestyle, are also ignored. A rigid work schedule doesn’t allow for an afternoon school pickup or a midday visit to the mosque. Caregiving or the pursuit of personal hobbies within the 9-to-5 window is out of question.
Finally, synchronous work environments are biased towards one time zone, which limits who can be on the team and which locations team members can work from.
Asynchronous communication and what it means for work
Asynchronous workflows empower workers to design their lives the way it most makes sense to them. Rather than organize their lives around work, they can organize work around their priorities. They can work and care for their children, or work and pursue their hobbies and passions. They can even break free from routine entirely, embracing a non-linear mindset that allows them to squeeze more out of their days.
The added freedom and flexibility, combined with fewer meetings— another trademark of asynchronous work environments—can help them achieve a better work-life balance.
But it’s not just employees who benefit. Companies increase their retention rates when their employees are happy and engaged. Fewer meetings and distractions tend to result in higher quality work as well as increased efficiency and productivity.
Embracing asynchronous communication and workflows also leads to better documentation (see What’s required for asynchronous work to work below).
Asynchronous work essentials
But operating asynchronously doesn’t just “happen.” For async to work, teams need to adopt specific values, attitudes, tools, and processes, including:
Transparency and psychological safety – A commitment to making information accessible and creating a safe space for asking and answering questions publicly
Internal documentation – Accessible, usable documentation containing information team members need to do anything, including tasks they’ve never done before
An internal documentation process – Ground rules about what gets documented, how, and how it’s distributed (see “Internal Documentation: How Much Is Too Much?” for tips and best practices)
A self-service, self-searching, and self-learning mentality – A habit of doing things independently, including searching for answers, addressing new questions, and documenting
- Tools – Software that facilitates asynchronous communication
Asynchronous work: getting started
Here’s how to get started with asynchronous work.
Run an asynchronous pilot
Consider easing into asynchronous work by running an asynchronous pilot for a week. During this test week, try turning half of your real-time meetings into asynchronous meetings. An asynchronous meeting is a discussion via a team collaboration tool, such as Threads, Basecamp, Slack, Trello, or Google Docs. Usually, the discussion is text-based, but some teams also use video recordings. Agenda items or questions are posed beforehand, and everyone on the team contributes in their own time (but within a time limit).
Try a non-linear workday
Experiment with a schedule that accommodates employees’ peak productivity hours or activities they’d like to prioritize (e.g. picking kids up from school, morning surfing).
Tips for embracing asynchronous communication and workflows
1. Ship small, fast
Resist the temptation to wait for a team member in another time zone to come online before starting on a task. GitLab, a community that operates asynchronously, recommends moving forward even when in doubt. “Move a project forward as best you can given the resources available. This allows colleagues to clearly see the direction you’re heading, and relieves pressure on them to reply immediately as some progress is better than none,” reads the platform’s playbook on asynchronous communication.
2. Document everything
Be proactive about documenting your work progress, what’s discussed and decided in meetings, and other information that may be useful to the team. Documentation provides team members with the context, historical data, and instructions they need to (independently) move forward. Make sure you follow your company or your team’s internal documentation guidelines.
3. Use the right channels
When an update that belongs in one channel gets posted on another, information can fall through the cracks and cause a breakdown in communication. To prevent this, create and/or follow team guidelines for how and where to input information.
4. Accommodate multiple time zones
If you are a team leader in charge of organizing synchronous events, rotate their times to accommodate a diverse range of time zones. Also, make recordings available for those who can’t attend.
5. Protect your time off
Take measures to ensure you are not pulled into work during non-working hours. Consider sharing your work schedule, turning off notifications, and removing Slack from your phone.
6. Question every meeting
Think twice before scheduling or saying yes to a meeting. If it does not have to be a meeting, politely decline and offer an async alternative.
Embrace asynchronous communication in remote work
Although asynchronous isn’t synonymous with remote, it is a strong element of remote work culture. The potential of remote work can’t be fully realized without asynchronous workflows: team members can’t really work from anywhere, or engage in deep work, if they have to operate in synchronicity.
By embracing asynchronous communication and workflows, companies can become more efficient and inclusive while empowering workers to live life on their terms.
For more remote work tips, check out: