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Understanding Asynchronous (Async) Work for Remote Teams in 2023

What does asynchronous work mean in an international context?

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‘Asynchronous working’ has become one of the buzzwords of the early-2020s, and for good reason. According to the Harvard Business Review, async working is a necessary antidote to the flaws often found in transitions to remote work cultures, and in global expansion strategies. But what does asynchronous work mean?

Async working is a company-wide style of work in which employees are not bound by traditional working hours, nor expected to respond to communications immediately. When working asynchronously, professionals are instead able to set their own working hours according to how they operate most efficiently. Work is decoupled from time, meaning that asynchronous workers move toward company objectives and deadlines at their own pace; their efficiency measured by their ability to meet both, rather than by their presence during ‘work hours’ or at often-inefficient meetings.

What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous working?

Synchronous work is the style of work which most of us are used to – especially if we work (or worked, pre-pandemic) in an office.

In a synchronous working environment, employees are expected to ‘clock-in’ at a set time, usually 9 or 10am, and then ‘clock-out’ around 5 or 6pm. In contrast, there are no set working hours for asynchronous workers. They choose when and where to work, based on the work-life balance which best suits their productivity.

The way synchronous employees work relies heavily on a hierarchical managerial structure, through which tasks and objectives are delegated by superiors, and progress is assessed through catch-up meetings and frequent communication, often via email. Asynchronous work, on the other hand, operates more laterally: employees access a centralised digital platform to select their tasks, the information required to complete them, and the deadlines for them. They separate colleague communication from their working hours, dedicating separate daily timeslots to deep focus and emails/messages, according to their own needs.

Breaking down the advantages and disadvantages of async working

Async working is still a fairly new style of doing business. Whilst it may in certain situations contribute to the success of global expansion and remote team management, it is not necessarily the best model for your company. Here’s a quick look at the key pros and cons to asynchronous working.

The Pros

  • Increased productivity: As async working takes off, more studies are suggesting that it has a link to increased productivity. In a similar vein to a study by CoSo Cloud – which found that 77% of respondents were more productive when working remotely – asynchronous work can increase productivity by allowing employees to apply themselves in shorter bursts.
  • Improved employee mental health and morale: Asynchronous working can allow employees to establish the work-life balance they need, in order to complete their work whilst taking care of their health. Whether a father caring for his children during the day and working for his employer after the kids go to bed, or an employee starting at midday to ensure they have time in the morning for exercise and mindfulness. A better work-life balance means happier and healthier employees, and is linked to greater employee retention, as well as encouraging brand loyalty in customers and clients.
  • Greater employee independence: One of the major unsung benefits of async working is its role as an equaliser. Greater employee independence (in terms of working hours, styles, etc.) requires a greater investment of trust in the individual, which in turn may create a workforce of more confident, proactive thinkers, able to contribute more creatively to your company’s growth.

The Cons

  • Onboarding requires greater sensitivity: Without real-time communication and collaboration, traditional onboarding may not be enough to make recruits feel comfortable in their new role or team. As such, onboarding procedures should be reassessed to conform with an async company structure.
  • Buffer zones are sometimes necessary to meet deadlines: With employees operating independently, there is a potentially higher chance that deadlines may be missed owing to communication breakdown across time zones. Introducing buffer zones (e.g. 24-hours either side of a deadline) can mitigate this issue.

Can asynchronous working benefit remote team management?

Managing a global or remote workforce equitably and efficiently may well benefit from introducing asynchronous working. Let’s examine how.

Asynchronous working can help multinationals overcome time zone differences

By its very nature, a global business expansion will likely see your operations spread across two or several different time zones. Remembering that asynchronous work is all about decoupling productivity and work from the constraints of time, and it becomes evident why an async working structure may benefit a company operating, for example, both at 10am PST (Pacific Standard Time), and 2am JST (Japan Standard Time).

Companies benefit from increased inclusivity and diversity

You can think of synchronous working as a sort of ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for the workplace. All employees are expected to be at their most productive during the hours of 9am and 5pm, to communicate most effectively via emails or messaging boards, and to excel in meetings.

Asynchronous work, on the other hand, gives workers the tools they need to develop a working schedule which works for them specifically. In turn, your company may attract a more diverse workforce, including people whose commitments or disabilities would hinder their ability to work during traditional office hours.

The technology exists to help you establish and maintain an effective async working culture

Whilst some of the world’s most successful tech companies have been fully-remote and asynchronous for years, until recently the technology necessary to facilitate efficient a-synchronicity was inaccessible to the average company. Today, however, this is no longer the case.

In order to reap the full benefits of async working, you need a centralised digital platform (or two) designed to meet your company’s specific needs: namely, organising and scheduling work for remote workers, allowing them to track and log their time, and facilitating their communication. These tools are now all available in neatly-packaged software, which is often either free to use or surprisingly affordable. Examples of asynchronous working tools include Google Teams/Docs, Slack, and Zoom.

Transparency and faithful documentation is key to increasing productivity

When you’re reading about async working, you’re bound to come across these phrases time and again: ‘transparency’ and ‘documentation’. But what do we mean by them, in the context of managing remote teams?

Traditionally, in synchronous workplaces, communication is conducted via emails between individuals, whilst progress on work is tracked by meetings and line-managers. These methods still work perfectly well for the majority of companies, but in asynchronous working they are eschewed in favour of transparency and documentation.

Transparency refers to the style of communication asynchronous workforces use as standard. Messages, wherever possible, should be accessible to all, so that everyone is kept abreast of changes to workflow, team structure, deadlines and company objectives. At the same time, employees should be trained to carefully document their work on platforms so that it can be accessed, tracked and commented on by all. Companies which work synchronously may also implement this mode of working to increase their overall efficiency.

Combined, transparency and documentation create a clear, accessible database of information to which all employees can refer, thus minimising the time they would otherwise spend in meetings with managers, or waiting for replies from colleagues.

Know when and for whom async working does and doesn’t work

Whilst we at Mauve appreciate the situations in which asynchronous work may benefit remote and global team management, it is important you remember that certain situations, and certain employees, will benefit from a more-synchronous approach.

  • When delivering delicate news to an employee, such as when making someone redundant, a face-to-face conversation is always preferable.
  • People from certain international work cultures may still prefer a more rigid structure (think, for example, of the Japanese ‘salary man’ culture).
  • Team-building events and casual work gatherings are still best conducted face-to-face, wherever possible.

A final though on introducing asynchronous working to your business

Asynchronous working – in which employees command their own working hours – is an idea akin to the four-day working week, recently trialled with reported success in the UK. It is new, and as such is an exciting prospect for many.

For businesses looking to expand internationally, as well as for team leaders managing a remote workforce, asynchronous working is definitely something to consider. Its benefits, increasingly backed by studies, include the improvement of company-wide productivity, and employee retention, wellbeing, and diversity. Moreover, the flexibility and independence inherent in async working may open new doors to global business expansion. Implementation of async work is also more viable in 2023 than ever before, owing to technological advancement.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that async work is a fix-all. As we’ve discussed, there are clearly situations in which an asynchronous style of working would be inappropriate, or may even be detrimental to the operations of a company. In practice, it remains a fairly rare mode of working outside of the realm of independent contractors, and today most companies still find synchronous working preferable.

The best style of working for any company ultimately depends on a number of factors, including its industry and the nature of its workforce. Mauve Group has decades of experience delivering expert advice to businesses small and large, helping them to make the best decisions for their future, whether they choose to work asynchronously or not.