Principles and Practices of Asynchronous Work
Asynchronous work is increasingly relevant in today’s varied work environments. It is a collaboration style where tasks are completed without real-time interaction. This model shifts the focus from meetings and real-time chats to written communication, allowing information exchange on a schedule that suits each participant’s convenience and productivity. Unlike traditional setups, immediate responses aren’t the norm here—except in emergencies. The primary focus is on achieving outcomes, rather than on the time spent.
To illustrate this definition, consider the following examples.
Synchronous work typically includes:
- In-person meetings
- Video and audio calls
- Live editing of shared documents
- Workshops and real-time collaborative sessions
- Group chat when used for real-time discussions or immediate responses
Conversely, asynchronous work might involve:
- Independent updating of shared documents, with comments or revisions added at different times
- Scheduled status updates
- Handling requests on your own time
- Group chat when used for non-urgent communication, allowing members to respond at their convenience
You may notice that both shared documents and group chats appear in both lists. This underscores that the nature of work isn’t necessarily dictated by the tool itself, but rather by how it is used.
For example, shared documents can be used for extended collaboration spanning days or for real-time editing in meetings. Similarly, group chats can be synchronous if there is an expectation to answer messages immediately or asynchronous if they act as an inbox that is checked intermittently.
Moreover, the design of these tools can also affect their usage. Some interfaces create a sense of urgency and a fear of missing out if not constantly monitored, while others are designed to be calmer, reassuring users that they can catch up in their own time.
After examining specific examples of synchronous and asynchronous work, let’s explore how asynchronous work improves both the work process and the work environment.
- Uninterrupted Deep Work: Enables longer periods of focused work without disruptions.
- Improved Information Exchange: The focus on written communication not only provides clearer context for decisions but also simplifies the process of retracing the rationale behind past decisions. This is also advantageous for new team members, who can easily catch up on ongoing discussions by reviewing recent documentation.
- Increased Inclusivity: Allows everyone to contribute, regardless of their ability to attend meetings, and supports those who may be more reserved in synchronous settings.
- Accommodation of Diverse Work Styles: Caters to a variety of work, communication, and cognitive styles, including the needs of neurodivergent individuals.
- Global Collaboration: Improves work with team members spread across multiple time zones.
- Employee Autonomy and Satisfaction: Boosts job satisfaction and engagement by increasing autonomy, which can lead to lower employee turnover.
- Trust and Responsibility Culture: Encourages judging employees based on output and results rather than online presence.
- Work-Life Balance: Offers flexibility that supports individual work preferences and life commitments, enhancing work-life balance.
- Reduced Stress and Burnout: Lowers the risk of burnout and reduces stress by removing the constant pressure of real-time demands.
- Efficiency and Productivity: Aligns work hours with individuals’ peak productivity times, resulting in higher efficiency.
- More Time for Core Tasks: Decreases time spent in meetings, freeing up more time for actual task completion.
Now that we understand the benefits of asynchronous work, we can examine some best practices that can be employed to reap them.
Consistently capture and document key information, ensuring all documents are accessible and easily discoverable in a shared knowledge base. This includes:
- Meeting notes
- Discovery and research findings
- Decision records and Architecture Decision Records (ADRs)
Define standard templates for each document type to ease creation, improve consistency, and set standards.
Strive for clear and concise language. Keep your audience in mind. Write in a way that is inclusive and easily comprehensible to all team members.
Regular check-ins are essential for keeping the team aligned and everyone informed. Consider whether daily check-ins can be conducted asynchronously, such as through scheduled discussion threads. This approach can be particularly effective for distributed teams. However, if daily face-to-face interaction is valued for social connection, synchronous daily check-ins may be preferred.
When opting for asynchronous daily check-ins, it’s beneficial to have a weekly synchronous team meeting. This can help mitigate feelings of isolation and foster team cohesion.
For teams that prefer holding regular meetings like plannings or reviews synchronously but are looking to add efficiency, adopting a semi-asynchronous approach can be advantageous. This method involves participants filling out a prepared meeting template in advance, allowing for more focused and productive face-to-face time.
Additionally, regular synchronous one-on-one meetings are essential. These sessions offer a space for giving and receiving feedback, addressing challenges, and providing personal and professional support.
In an asynchronous collaboration setting, it is important to manage expectations and communicate effectively:
- When you send a message, don’t expect an immediate response.
- Give enough context in your initial message. This reduces the need for follow-up clarification and makes your communication more efficient.
- Anticipate and address potential questions in your communications. This foresight can significantly reduce the need for back-and-forth messaging.
- If you ask team members to collaborate on a shared document, set a clear deadline until when comments are expected to ensure timely contributions.
Embracing asynchronous work does not mean completely eliminating all synchronous communication. There are instances where synchronous meetings are necessary and beneficial. To ensure that these meetings are productive and considerate of everyone’s time, follow these guidelines:
- Before scheduling a meeting, evaluate whether its objectives can be met asynchronously, for example via shared documents or discussion threads.
- Avoid purely informational meetings. Opt for a written update instead.
- If you’re invited to a meeting that could potentially be conducted asynchronously, don’t hesitate to respectfully ask about this possibility.
- Always share a clear meeting agenda in advance, explaining its purpose and main talking points. Allow everybody time to review the agenda, add their talking points, and make comments before the meeting.
- If you receive a meeting invite without an agenda, request one. Set a standard that meetings require agendas, and consider declining those without.
- If a participant’s presence is required only for a part of the meeting, communicate this clearly to prevent unnecessary attendance for the entire duration.
- Clarify that attendees whose active participation is not needed are free to leave at any time or engage in other tasks while listening.
- Update the agenda with notes in real-time during the meeting.
- Apply time boxing to keep the meeting on track. Potentially assign a designated timekeeper.
- Respect time commitments by starting and ending as scheduled. If discussions remain unfinished, continue them asynchronously or plan a follow-up meeting. This approach allows time for reflection, thought organization, and can lead to improved outcomes in follow-up discussions.
- Conclude meetings by clearly stating and documenting the outcomes and action items.
- Share the final meeting document in a team channel, allowing access for all, including those unable to attend.
Establishing clear expectations is crucial for both teams and companies. Below are examples of guidelines on key topics that can serve as a foundation for your company’s policies.
We value deep, uninterrupted work, and therefore, do not expect immediate responses to every message. Focus on your tasks first and address incoming messages at a convenient time.
However, be mindful that excessively delayed responses can impede the progress of your teammates. As a guideline, aim to reply to requests well within one working day. This time frame excludes weekends, holidays, vacation days, and sick days.
In cases of truly urgent requests, which should clearly be marked as such, please respond more promptly.
We expect you to work around 40 hours per week in a flex-time model, unless noted differently in your contract. This includes attending all required meetings. Beyond these commitments, we do not enforce fixed working hours. We encourage you to work according to your energy levels and personal responsibilities. However, we also emphasize the importance of communicating your general availability to your team to enable coordination and collaboration.
We place our trust in each team member to complete tasks to the best of their abilities. You are the expert in knowing how and when you work most effectively. Our focus is on the results you produce, rather than the specific hours you work. This trust comes with the responsibility to ensure your work aligns with team objectives and deadlines, maintaining open communication about progress and challenges.
We prefer asynchronous collaboration whenever feasible. However, when synchronous meetings are necessary, we are committed to respecting each other’s time by starting and concluding them on schedule.
A well-defined agenda should be distributed in advance to allow everybody to prepare and participate. If you find the purpose or agenda of a meeting unclear, you are encouraged to decline the invitation.
Additionally, if it becomes evident during a meeting that your active participation is not needed, you are encouraged to discreetly leave or continue listening while engaging in other tasks.
We understand the importance of disconnecting and respect your off-duty hours. There is no expectation for you to be always available; responding to messages and notifications outside of your work hours is not required.
We favor communication tools that lack a presence feature and encourage you to disable such features in tools that have them. Additionally, we recommend removing work-related apps from your personal devices. If you choose to have them, we strongly encourage disabling their notifications during your off-hours.
To ensure everyone has ample time to rest, rejuvenate, and attend to personal matters, we schedule meetings only between 9 am and 6 pm. In the case of teams spread across multiple time zones, we strive to find meeting times that are considerate of everyone’s local working hours.
As we’ve outlined the best practices for asynchronous work, another important aspect to consider is the challenges that may arise. The following table presents common challenges associated with asynchronous work, along with effective strategies for mitigating them. This serves as a guide to not only embracing best practices but also to proactively addressing potential obstacles.
|Regular updates and check-ins
|Delays in decision-making
|Clear expectations and guidelines for urgent communications
|Potential for misunderstandings
|Clarity in communication and providing context
|Difficulties in team building and risk of isolation
|Occasional synchronous meetings, team-building activities, and informal online channels
|Regular status updates and focus on outcomes
|Balancing collaboration and deep work
|Set clear expectations and use tools that support asynchronous communication
|Risk of work overload due to flexible hours
|Encourage setting clear boundaries, promoting a culture that respects personal time, and self-monitoring work hours through personal time tracking.
In summary, asynchronous work, with its focus on deep work, flexibility and outcomes rather than real-time interaction, offers significant benefits for the modern workplace. By adopting best practices, such as effective documentation, regular check-ins, and clear communication, teams can maximize productivity and inclusivity. Addressing potential challenges proactively is also crucial for a seamless transition to this work style. As the work environment continues to evolve, embracing asynchronous work can lead to more efficient, balanced, and collaborative teams.
- What Great Hybrid Cultures Do Differently (HBR)
- Remote Work Should Be (Mostly) Asynchronous (HBR)
- Research: Asynchronous Work Can Fuel Creativity (HBR)
- What the heck is asynchronous communication anyway? (Twist)
- How to Move Your Team Toward Async-First Communication (Twist)
- The Art of Async: The Remote Guide to Team Communication (Twist)
- How to embrace asynchronous communication for remote work (Gitlab)
- The complete guide to asynchronous and non-linear working (Gitlab)