Discover how async work gives you back more time to… work. Uncover the benefits, challenges, and which tools to use to boost team productivity.
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What comes to mind when you hear the words “fax machine”? Outsized shoulder pads? Yuppies? The Cold War?
Most people associate the fax with the 1980s, but the original asynchronous work tool is almost as old as the telegraph, having been developed by Scottish mechanic Alexander Bain in 1843. However, it didn’t get popular until the late 20th century when it became a faster, more efficient alternative to mail.
Fast forward a few decades and faxes are now museum pieces, superseded by instant messaging and video conferencing. Now, we communicate at the speed of light and are more productive than ever.
Or are we?
Always prioritizing real-time working and communication–like defaulting to meetings and instant messaging–can actually make you less productive. Truth is, you can move projects forward faster and get happier employees by working async whenever possible. That’s why leaders need to understand how and when to work async to empower their teams to get more done on their own schedule.
In this post, you’ll learn about the benefits and challenges of async working, plus some tips to do it right and create more resilient, flexible teams that don’t need to be online at the same time to get work done.
Get more done—without constant meetings.
Switchboard keeps everything–and everyone–organized by project, so you can make progress in your own time.
What is asynchronous work & why does it matter?
Asynchronous work is when team members complete tasks and reply to messages on their own schedule rather than in real time. Employees may set their own hours and work when it’s convenient for them. Or they may be online at the same time as others but without the expectation of immediate responses to messages.
Either way, there’s more focus on results than when things get done. This benefits performance, productivity, and satisfaction, as we’ll see below.
Asynchronous collaboration is often adopted by remote and hybrid organizations, though it’s also becoming more common for in-person teams.
Asynchronous work vs. synchronous work
Let’s look at some of the key differences between synchronous vs asynchronous work and collaboration:
- Asynchronous work involves working at your own pace or in your own time rather than having to be online, available, and responsive during specific work hours.
- Synchronous work involves working at the same time as others, whether it’s collaborating side by side or in a meeting.
- Asynchronous work relies more heavily on good documentation and processes.
- Companies working async put more trust in employees and their ability to get the job done rather than focusing on how or when they do it.
- Synchronous communication and working involve in-person meetings, phone and video calls, or instant messaging via tools like Slack.
- Synchronous work is best for when you need to achieve alignment, get consensus, take decisions, or brainstorm.
- Async communication and work involves emails, task management using project management systems like Trello or Asana, and document sharing using platforms like Google Workspace.
- Async is appropriate anytime people can complete tasks without supervision or input.
Some benefits of asynchronous work
Next, let’s take a look at how async work benefits your teams and company.
Collaborate across different times and locations
While async isn’t exclusive to remote or hybrid environments, it certainly makes them more feasible. This allows you to offer the freedom and flexibility employees want. According to Deloitte, 75% of millennials and 77% of Gen Z workers would consider switching companies if they had to go back to working on site.
Being location-independent also broadens your access to global talent, with 57% of companies saying a distributed work model improves hiring and retention. Hiring more diverse teams also benefits creativity, problem solving, innovation, and overall business performance.
As Elliott Brown, Startup Marketing Consultant, High-Impact GTM Strategies, says, “[Async] allows you to be geographically distributed, take teammates from anywhere, have work going on all the time as a company, and reduce costs.”
Note, though, that async isn’t only for remote or hybrid teams. People in in-person companies also benefit from being able to do more outside of meetings and get back more time for focus work.
More focused teams and working
Asynchronous work reduces the need for immediate responses and constant meetings. This means fewer interruptions and more time for deep work. While some meetings will still be necessary, you can replace a lot with async communication. We’ll look at how later.
Async collaboration also empowers team members to manage their schedules and work when they’re most productive. For example, night owls may do their best work in the evening.
Pro tip: Use a visual collaboration platform like Switchboard to keep everything–and everyone–organized in persistent rooms. Just add all the browser-based apps, documents, and files you need and get to work. After the session, everything stays right where you left it. This means anyone can hop in to make progress async or catch up with room recordings and AI-generated summaries. This lets you cancel more meetings and get back more time for focus work.
For the meetings you do have, sharing materials in the room beforehand lets people get up to speed before the call—so you can get straight down to business when it starts.
More autonomy and flexibility
Async work requires you to trust employees and give them autonomy and responsibility. This fosters accountability and ownership and makes for more engaged and satisfied employees.
It can also help with work-life balance. You can, says Brown, “structure little breaks in your day when you need them, or if you have children… It lets you build your workday around your life, as opposed to the other way around.”
Work-life balance and flexible working are especially important for younger workers: 24% of Gen Z and 30% of millennials say it’s a priority for them.
Accommodate different working and communication styles
Asynchronous work lets different personalities shine. Not everyone performs best face-to-face or in big groups, so async gives them a chance to consider things before contributing.
It, says Brown, “lets everyone work their way, which can play to their strengths. People who are accomplishing tasks can focus on that; people who are responsible for higher level output can focus on making sure that's as good as it can be. It lets everyone do what they love to do best and focus most of their time on that.”
Challenges of asynchronous work
To realize the benefits of async work, you first need to understand the challenges. Let’s look at those now before getting into the solutions.
Keeping people aligned and collaborating
Keeping people aligned and “making sure everyone continues to collaborate well when they don't have those consistent points of contact, and maybe aren't building relationships in the same way,” are major challenges, says Brown. If not dealt with, they can create bottlenecks.
Also, unless roles, tasks, and deadlines are clearly defined, this can lead to a lack of clarity and engagement, with people not knowing if or when they should jump in. This can cause missed deadlines or notification overload when people message everyone because they don’t know who to ask.
Async, says Brown, “can be socially isolating. It can be a little harder to build a team, too, because relationships can become transactional. Like, ‘I stamp the widget, put it in the car door, pass it down the line… you can start to feel like you're alone on an assembly line.”
You can still build strong connected teams with fewer in-person interactions. However, you need to be more intentional about building and maintaining relationships when you don’t have the frequent face-to-face interactions of a traditional office.
Misconceptions about async working
Async work relies on fostering trust and autonomy—without the need for constant oversight. This can be challenging for leaders and lead to a tendency to micromanage.
“There's a misperception,” says Brown, “that people work less, or that [async] is lazy. Ideally, that's not the case. If you have your goals set, everyone has their responsibilities, and they’re meeting deadlines, the “how” should matter a little less. And, hopefully, people are more productive, because they have a little more time in their day… lack of accountability is another misperception.”
In addition, people are used to defaulting to real-time communication to get things done. This means focus time can be interrupted by meeting requests if these are seen as “more important.”
With great power comes great responsibility: If employees are used to having tasks dictated to them, they may struggle to prioritize without oversight. Also, instant messaging tools like Slack create a sense of urgency, making you feel like everything needs to be dealt with now, which distracts you from more important tasks.
Risk of misinterpretation
Not everyone excels at written communication, which can result in long, convoluted messages that are hard to interpret. It’s also harder to judge tone, which leaves more room for misunderstandings. There’s also no opportunity to read the room and adjust based on people’s reactions, which makes async less appropriate for sensitive situations.
Blurred work-life boundaries
This is by no means exclusive to remote, hybrid, or async working. However, without the start and end times of a synchronous workday, employees can find it hard to disconnect—especially when others are still working. Irregular hours can also be difficult to keep track of, which can lead to people overworking and suffering from burnout.
All this makes maintaining healthy work-life boundaries in a potentially always-on work model can be a challenge.
Best practices for implementing asynchronous work
Now you know what not to do, let’s take a look at some best practices to create an asynchronous work culture.
Get aligned on roles, goals, and expectations
Start by getting aligned at the top and building strong relationships between team leads to set an example.Then, ensure everyone is clear about tasks, roles, and processes. When you have clarity, it’s easier to prioritize.
You should also establish expectations about async communication, like what’s an acceptable response time.
Finally, revisit goals regularly to check everyone is working toward them together. This, says Brown, avoids “people twisting in the wind and left to their own devices. They’re focused on accomplishing something.”
Good planning and processes
Scalable, repeatable processes broken down into their component tasks make it easier for people to work toward a larger goal. Document them in standard operating procedures and save these in your persistent Switchboard room so people can access them anytime. This ensures work is done to standard every time without oversight—and lets people work more independently.
Remember to account for lags caused by asynchronous communication when drafting roadmaps and setting deadlines. For example, by always leaving a day between dependent tasks.
Use the right tools and communication channels
To work async you need internal collaboration tools like Google Docs or project management platforms like Asana. These asynchronous collaboration tools let you set up workflows, assign tasks, track progress, and work on your own schedule. They also provide visibility into who’s doing what, which encourages accountability and reduces the urge to micromanage. Many also send notifications so nobody’s ever out of the loop.
Be sure to also provide training in effective async communication, like how to write clear emails. This will help avoid unproductive back-and-forth and misinterpretations.
Pro tip: Use Switchboard as the basis of your tech stack to unite all your people, apps, and documents in dedicated, persistent rooms—so you never need to go hunting for anything again.
See here for more on how to work async with your team in Switchboard.
Create opportunities for connection and collaboration
When people interact less face-to-face, you need to make an extra effort to build connections. This in turn creates trust and empathy, which are essential for great teamwork. As Brown says, async doesn’t mean “not together.”
Look for opportunities to create spontaneous interactions, like using a permanent Switchboard room for watercooler chats or games—both in real time or async. Remember, you can also build collaboration into the day-to-day via activities like hackathons or brainstorming. Basically, it’s about finding ways to work together that don't just involve checking off tasks in Asana. The more leadership creates an environment where everything feels part of a team effort, the better everyone’s output will be.
Eliminate silos and context switching
It’s hard to stay aligned and productive when information is scattered across comment threads and different platforms. Combined with a lack of connection between team members, this can lead to siloed working and up to four hours per week wasted toggling between different tools and tabs to find information.
If you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll be well on the way to eliminating team silos. To get rid of information silos, use a central workspace like Switchboard that lets you keep everything–and everyone–organized by project or topic.
See here for more strategies to eliminate silos.
Cancel more meetings
Switching to async doesn’t–and shouldn’t–happen overnight. As Brown says, “You don't have to say, ‘Starting tomorrow, we don't have meetings anymore.’” Instead, start small and audit regular meetings to see which you could replace with async processes or make them shorter. For example, making 30 min meetings into 15 mins. Reviews, approvals, updates, and feedback are all good candidates. You can also try meeting-free days or times to ease everyone in.
Know when to work in sync
Async doesn’t mean avoiding direct communication altogether. There will always be times you need to get together face to face. For instance, to get alignment, plan and strategize, or build connections. And, of course, there are times when you can resolve things faster by hopping on a quick huddle rather than going back and forth in endless Google Docs comments, for example.
Set and respect boundaries
Encourage people to block off time for focus work in their calendars and Slack status. They should also silence notifications for the duration and specify working hours and timezones in Slack profiles and email signatures. This lets people know when you’re available and helps you avoid overworking.
Asynchronous work, for happier, more productive teams
In the 100+ years since the invention of the fax machine, we’ve gone from real-time working to async and back—with a thousand apps and notifications making demands on our time. This prioritization of real-time working and communication takes a toll on our productivity and can actually slow down projects and contribute to burnout.
You can move projects forward faster, and get happier employees, by canceling meetings and working async whenever possible. Leaders need to understand when async works best–and how to implement it correctly. For example, knowing when a meeting could be an email—to empower their teams to get more done on their own schedule.
In this post, we covered the benefits of switching to an async working model instead. For example, greater autonomy and flexibility, more time for focus work, and the ability to work from anywhere. Of course, there are challenges, like getting alignment, building connections, and prioritizing. There’s also the temptation to micromanage or let work bleed into your free time. To overcome these, you need clarity on roles, goals, and processes, as well as opportunities to build relationships, eliminate silos, and safeguard work-life balance.
All this becomes easier when you use Switchboard as the basis of your async collaboration tech stack. Keep everything organized in persistent rooms so everyone can always find what they need and make progress when it suits them. This lets you cancel more meetings and enjoy the benefits of async work.
Get more done—without constant meetings.
Switchboard keeps everything–and everyone–organized by project, so you can make progress in your own time.