Asynchronous Work–How to Enable Flexibility Beyond Standard Working Hours
What is asynchronous work?
Let’s start with the basics: just what do we mean when we talk about ‘asynchronous work’?
Simply put, working asynchronously means there is no expectation of an immediate response when communicating with colleagues. At 360Learning, that often means tagging a colleague in a Trello comment in the morning, and receiving a reply in the evening, the next day, or whenever it’s convenient for the recipient. At other companies, it could mean sending an email, tagging someone on a Google document, pinging them on a project management platform, or similar.
Asynchronous communication is the opposite of synchronous, or real-time, communication. Synchronous communication examples include using Zoom (or Hangout, or Skype…) calls, in-person meetings, or talking via chat functionalities like Google chat.
An asynchronous-first work approach aims to challenge the age-old assumption that work only happens between people communicating at the same fixed point in time. It tries to rebalance the equation so that written communication is the default, and meetings, when they happen, are more purposeful. The idea? Team members are empowered to work on the schedule that’s best for them.
Switching to asynchronous communication is ultimately about helping everyone improve the quality of their work, as well as their well-being. This is especially relevant for companies with employees in multiple time zones, where teammates are often juggling meetings at odd hours that can cut into personal time. It also relies on trust. For an asynchronous-first approach to flourish, leadership needs to trust that their teams can function without constant meeting and face-to-face interaction—which, while sometimes challenging for some organizations, is well worth the effort.
For an asynchronous-first approach to flourish, leadership needs to trust that their teams can function without constant meeting and face-to-face interaction—which, while sometimes challenging for some organizations, is well worth the effort.
As Steve Glaveski writing in the Harvard Business Review notes, “[...] asynchronous communication predisposes people to better decision-making by increasing the amount of time we have to respond to a request. When you’re on a phone call or video chat, you’re making real-time decisions, whereas if you’re communicating via email, you have more time to think about your response.”
We couldn’t agree more. And, as we’ll see below, the benefits of working asynchronously extend far beyond improved decision-making.
Why asynchronous work leads to better outcomes
There are three main reasons an asynchronous-first approach to work is beneficial for most teams at the majority of companies: it more easily allows for deep work, it makes work fairer for employees (including better work-life balance), and it enables more time for learning. Let’s explore these points in more detail.
Asynchronous work enables deep work
Our philosophy at 360Learning is that when people are switching contexts every other minute, they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. An asynchronous (and low meeting) environment minimizes interruptions to help employees focus.
If you’re not convinced that workplace distraction is a serious problem, consider these findings cited in the Harvard Business Review:
“The average employee is getting interrupted 50 to 60 times per day, and about 80% of these interruptions are unimportant. As a result, people are spending little time in what psychologists call “the flow state,” a space where people are up to five times more productive, according to research from McKinsey. The constant distractions are not only leaving people less productive, but also more stressed than ever, with a lack of control over one’s work being cited as a major contributor to workplace stress, according to the American Institute of Stress.”
The average employee is getting interrupted 50 to 60 times per day, and about 80% of these interruptions are unimportant.
Now, if you’re about to say that meetings aren’t in and of themselves a distraction, recent research from the online teaching and learning platform Udemy might have you think again:
“If company leaders think people are fully engaged during meetings, they are sorely mistaken. Indeed, 60% of our survey respondents said meetings are just another distraction from the work they need to complete. Compounding the problem, meetings themselves frequently fall victim to interruptions and distractions.”
For employees that are ever more distracted—and therefore increasingly stressed—an asynchronous, low-meeting approach gives them the freedom to focus and own their own time. Complex projects advance better, team morale improves, and everybody wins. In short, we can improve both employee wellbeing and company productivity.
But the benefits of asynchronous work may be felt even more strongly by certain groups of workers—in particular, working moms.
Asynchronous work makes the workplace more equitable
Aside from providing much-needed focus time, asynchronous work provides an unprecedented level of flexibility to employees—flexibility that’s often essential to certain groups, like parents. American working mothers especially felt the burden of raising children and trying to stay in the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many being forced to quit their jobs when childcare options dried up. Indeed, from May and June 2020, one out of four women who became unemployed during the pandemic reported in a survey published in the Washington Post that the job loss was due to a lack of childcare. That’s twice the rate of men surveyed.
Now, even as the pandemic has receded, working mothers still bear the burden of a grueling double shift. When employees need to be in an office from nine to five with no wiggle room and no universal childcare options, mothers often have to make tough choices. But enabling both remote and asynchronous work radically turns the tables. In fact, “ensuring flexible work schedules” was identified in May 2022 by McKinsey as a way to lighten the burden on working mothers, especially single women, women of color, and women in dual-income households.
If moms can pick up their kids from daycare at 4pm, take their toddler’s temperature instead of being on a live conference call, and respond to their boss’s email at 9pm after the little ones have gone to sleep, it would make it infinitely simpler for them to find a work-life balance that avoids having to sacrifice a healthy family for their professional goals–or vice versa.
Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, explains: “We have an opportunity, in this “great resignation,” to redesign workplaces—simple things like why are work days 9am to 5pm and school days 8am to 3pm? Even changing the hours when we are working in the office could be game-changing for so many families.”
Asynchronous and remote work goes a step further, offering much-needed additional flexibility for everyone, especially working moms.
It's worth considering what happens when companies aren’t willing to offer the flexibility mothers need. Reshma sums it up nicely:
“When they [working mothers] leave the workforce, organizations suffer from a loss of the institutional knowledge they had, their managerial capabilities, the mentorship that they provided to young people entering the workforce.”
All in all, it’s a lose-lose for both families and employers.
Asynchronous work enables more time for learning
If employees are able to work flexibly and on their own schedule, this frees up a potentially huge amount of time for learning on the job. Indeed, as our recent study uncovered, time is the biggest barrier to employees engaging with learning as much as they would like: Over half of US respondents said that what would help them take advantage of more work-related learning opportunities is if they could learn at work during working hours, or if their manager helped them offload some of their work.
When employees have the bandwidth to upskill from within, they ensure they stay motivated and engaged, all while keeping their organization on the cutting edge.
So, now that we’ve convinced you that an asynchronous approach to work life is the most beneficial, how can you actually go about putting it into practice?
7 steps to build an asynchronous culture that works for you
As you’ve gathered, asynchronous working is all about flexibility in the service of better quality work and increased work-life balance. But building this culture isn’t easy–especially for organizations used to traditional modes of synchronous work. Employers need to embrace this mindset and set up the right groundwork to enable this kind of culture. Concretely, this includes:
1. Offering employees flexible working hours
No more rigid 9am to 5pm schedules. If someone can complete their work in small chunks from 6am to 8pm, or in a few bursts from 4pm to 10pm, we see no problem with this. As long as they are committed to their performance, asynchronous work enables everyone to work on the schedule that suits them.
2. Instituting a low meeting culture
For this kind of asynchronous work to flourish, there needs to be a work culture of low meetings. This means time zones and physical distances become much less of a barrier to efficient communication.
Yet, even we admit, sometimes you really do have to organize a meeting: Typically, it’s because you want to solve a problem or reach a consensus through many quick iterations. For these truly essential synchronous meetings, make sure to set ground rules:
- In the meeting invite, write the goal of the meeting
- Ensure the meeting starts and ends on time
- Log the highlights of the meeting in writing, and refuse to attend meetings where this hasn’t been the case in the past
- Plan to cut meeting times by one third (or more!)
3. Opting for written communication
Whenever possible, encourage employees to use written instead of verbal communication, and bake this into company processes. Ensure this communication is clear and succinct, using tactics like the pyramid principle.
4. Providing the right tools
Ensure your team has access to the kinds of tools they need to communicate asynchronously: Collaborative tools like Google Docs, Figma, or Miro, video recording solutions like Loom, Iorad, or Claap, and project management platforms like Trello or Asana all go a long way in facilitating a low-meeting, asynchronous culture.
5. Setting up clear scopes and high accountability
For true asynchronous (and remote) work to flourish, each employee needs to have a clear understanding of their scope and a firm sense of accountability. Many meetings and chats are avoided when there is nothing fuzzy about who does what and who, at the end of the day, is responsible for which projects. At 360Learning, we use the OKR system, updated each quarter and shared transparently, to keep everyone on the same page.
6. Instilling a metrics-driven environment
How can you tell if you’ve succeeded in the scope you’re accountable for? If the Objectives and Key Results you’ve set for yourself, as measured by the right metrics, are achieved. Using quantifiable metrics instead of subjective indicators keeps everybody honest and on track, whether you’re in the office or 1,000 miles away.
7. Insisting on transparency and communication
No water cooler talk or backdoor meetings. Top-down and bottom-up, communication needs to be written, but also transparent and frequent. At 360Learning, we prefer public forums like Trello to emails. Beyond that, we host a bi-weekly all-hands where questions submitted anonymously are answered directly by our CEO and senior leadership team.
But does it really work for everyone? Some caveats
There is one big exception to the asynchronous communication rule, and that is for client-facing teams, such as sales or customer success. Since they are working frequently with others outside of our organization, it’s understandably very challenging for them to keep their schedules as asynchronous as, say, someone on the engineering, finance, or marketing team.
It’s important to be clear in job descriptions and with new hires about these exceptions—nobody wants to feel like they’ve been given a bait and switch. That being said, client-facing teams that are part of an asynchronous company culture will still have fewer meetings and more flexibility than those in a traditional 9am to 5pm, since most internal work can still follow the asynchronous model.
Next chapter: Autonomous work.
Looking for a roadmap to implementing a flexible work culture? Download our strategic cheat sheet and learn how you can overcome the seven most common objections to building flexible work solutions.