The shift to remote work has led some teams to experiment with asynchronous work — and redefine the concept of teamwork in the process.

Whether it’s sports, relationships, or work, we all suffer from some personal bias about what a healthy team looks like. But ask yourself this:

Is working together the same as working as a team?

To many of us, the answer is no. All teams work together to pursue a common goal, but that doesn’t mean they have to literally work together at the same time, in the same location.

In this post, we’ll explore the concept of asynchronous work and share some of our best strategies to increase productivity.

But first, let’s make sure we’re clear about what asynchronous work is.

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What is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous work occurs when teams have work hours that don’t directly align. This happens because of time zone and location differences or because teams choose their own hours.

Some teams have specific mandatory overlapping hours, and they operate asynchronously outside of that time. Some remote teams start out working a fixed schedule but gradually become more asynchronous over time to work around other responsibilities.

There’s no right or wrong way to adopt this scheduling style.

When it comes to asynchronous work, you may be wondering: how can you make time for team collaboration if your team’s schedules are so different?

Chances are, you won’t be able to do away with all synchronous work. So how do you decide which work should be done asynchronously and which should be done synchronously?

Asynchronous vs. synchronous work (examples)

Asynchronous vs. synchronous work pyramid

Source: Doist

So what is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous work?

The main difference is that synchronous work happens in real-time while async work happens on our own time.

Even if a team spans different time zones, they’re operating synchronously when they engage in a Zoom video call, a Slack back and forth, or another communication method that requires an immediate response.

Real-time communication is great, but it isn’t always possible. Some remote employees only overlap for a few hours a day, so they’ll have to mix in some async communication, too.

This could come in the form of watching a video, reading a guide a teammate created in Google Docs, or sending a progress update email.

At first glance, async communication leaves more room for error than synchronous communication —but not if you have the right tools.

Fortunately, we’re no strangers to async work here at Hubstaff. Even before the pandemic, we’ve been working in a remote, asynchronous environment for over a decade.

Take it from us: Respecting people’s time and allowing them to work at their own pace can change your life for the better.

Why should asynchronous work be part of your business strategy?

Companies around the globe already realize that remote workforces perform better than in-office teams. But can asynchronous collaboration help us take productivity to even greater heights?

Well, not without overcoming some remote work challenges.

Limited meeting time, time zone differences, and language barriers can affect even the most experienced teams. You’ll also need to strengthen relationships and encourage remote communication. Not all work environments have conventional coffee breaks or water cooler chats.

The benefits of asynchronous work

At Hubstaff, we’ve found that having the right tools makes asynchronous communication one of our greatest strengths.

With asynchronous work, team members get plenty of time to focus, but we still have excellent systems in place to help us stay connected. However, it’s not only about productivity.

One of the primary reasons we’re asynchronous is because of our company values.

At Hubstaff, we believe asynchronous communication is the future of work.  Flexible schedules help us reduce burnout and be more present for the things that matter most to us. It also allows us to put our families and personal lives first.

“Working at Hubstaff has allowed me to take full advantage of remote work. Being an ex-pat is never easy: I find myself missing my family, friends, and even the Portuguese cuisine more than I expected. Thanks to remote work, I’m able to travel back home every few months to spend quality time with my family. Even back home, I can continue working without missing a beat.”

Tiago Santos
Software Engineer
Hubstaff

As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. We love the ability to change plans at a moment’s notice. Because we try to limit meetings whenever possible, no one has to cancel plans or refrain from spontaneous decisions when working async:

“I can volunteer for a field trip when another chaperone cancels at the last minute. I can wake up and decide to go to the beach with my family because it’s a beautiful day. I can do these things knowing I’m not letting others down and disrespecting their time. All I need to do is find time to make up the work.”

Courtney Cavey
Director of Marketing
Hubstaff
Florida, U.S.

Of course, asynchronous collaboration gets easier the more you practice. Spontaneous trips, flexible hours, and impromptu time with family simply aren’t possible without healthy workflows.

So how can you get started?

How to create an asynchronous workflow

The critique that async work can easily slip through the cracks is valid. That’s why it’s extremely important to collaborate with your team to create an asynchronous workflow.

The first step is to create an asynchronous collaboration policy.

1. Create an asynchronous collaboration policy

Overhauling the way you work can be overwhelming, so it’s much easier to create new policies when you break them into smaller subcategories. Help your team adjust to change gradually by prioritizing specific policies and adopting new habits one by one.

Here are a few areas to focus on while developing your asynchronous work policy:

Meetings

As previously mentioned, unnecessary meetings hurt productivity.

That said, you won’t be able to do away with them altogether. You may need to hold sprint meetings, weekly 1:1s, and brainstorming sessions to keep your team connected.

This can be a challenge for asynchronous teams. With so many different schedules to deal with, there are very small windows where everyone is available at the same time. So how do you make it work?

One way is to have your teams utilize the Stand-up feature in Hubstaff Tasks. If someone can’t make a meeting, their team leader can share what they’ve been working on.

Stand-up

Even if you can find a time when everyone’s schedule overlaps, there still may be people missing because of sick time, vacations, or other conflicts.

It’s also smart to record meetings so that those team members can catch up when they’re available. Plus, team members who were there can look back on the recording to clear up confusion and remember what was said.

Communication etiquette

When it comes to remote meetings, video calls, and Slack messages, create a general etiquette guide for your teams. Include guidelines for communication tools too. Consider this:

  • Slack response time etiquette – How quickly do you expect people to respond on Slack and other instant messaging apps?
  • Video meeting camera policy – When should team members keep their cameras on?
  • Cell phone policies – What are the rules for contacting people on their personal devices?

One of the most common complaints from new remote and distributed teams during the pandemic was that it was hard to unplug and get away from work. Some people felt like they were living at work rather than working from home.

Set clear boundaries so that off time can truly be a time to unplug and stop thinking about work.

At the same time, your team members need to hold each other accountable so that work doesn’t stall.

If your remote workers are on their phone during meetings or not responding to Slack messages in a timely manner, it can make it harder to collaborate efficiently. If left unchecked, these small habits can balloon and create productivity issues.

Create a communication manifesto

At Hubstaff, we include all of the policy elements we just talked about in our Communication Manifesto. To see how we create and handle asynchronous communication rules, get a free copy of our policy here.

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We’ve worked through our fair share of communication challenges — just like every other growing team.

One of the ways we conquered our collaboration struggles was by creating this Communication Manifesto.

Our goal is to strike a balance between being available and responsive to teammates while still finding quiet time to focus without interruptions. The Communication Manifesto gives us clear boundaries and expectations to help us do that.

Make your communication guidelines even clearer by setting up rules for do-not-disturb hours.

Do-not-disturb hours

Slack Do Not Disturb feature

If you want your team to become great at asynchronous collaboration, create an environment where your team never feels afraid to be offline. People should trust that they can step away and recharge when they need to.

Even when your team is signed in and working, they don’t always have to be available for interruptions. One of the biggest advantages of remote work is the ability to control distractions while you tackle jobs that need a lot of focus.

Use Do Not Disturb and custom status away status settings for messaging apps like Slack. If you’re not sure how to configure these settings, Slack has a helpful guide to get you started.

At Hubstaff, we like to do this with a shared Gmail calendar as well. Our team posts when they’ll be out of the office or unavailable during the day.

If team members plan to be out frequently, they can create their own office hours by adding time to the calendar and changing the “Does not repeat” setting to a frequency of their choice. You can learn more tricks from Google’s support page. 

You can even use this feature to create time blocking schedules and implement focus time best practices.

Even when your asynchronous teams are on the clock, you still need to instill a culture where each team member’s independence is respected. One of the ways we do this at Hubstaff is with focus time.

Hubstaffers have the option to block out two four-hour periods each week for focused tasks. We put our times on a shared calendar and use these points in our week to grind out deep work.

Focus time isn’t fool-proof, but the idea is that you will have eight hours a week of uninterrupted time. That means no Slack messages, emails, or meetings.

2. Find tools for async conversations and meetings

Respecting boundaries is difficult without the right tools. That’s why our team at Hubstaff has a few staples we like to turn to. Here are some of the best apps for async work.

Yac

Yac is a tool that allows teams to hold asynchronous meetings. Can’t find time to meet with a co-worker? No problem.

With Yac, you can create pre-recorded meetings that allow you to add attachments, copy transcriptions, and share Yacs with other members of your team.

Here’s a Yac I received from Yac’s Head of Customer Experience, Tyler Sellhorn:

“At Yac, we’re in the business of building high-performing remote teams. We do that by prioritizing voice messaging over text messaging and screen sharing over video conferencing. We’re all about putting those two things together in a space where you can have a better meeting that’s more efficient.”

Tyler Sellhorn
Head of Customer Experience
Yac

You can even simulate the screen sharing features of a tool like Zoom or Slack with the annotations feature. Record your screen and draw on it like a virtual whiteboard to emphasize your points. Then, send it to your team for feedback.

Slack

Slack is a workplace communication and messaging tool for teams of all sizes.

An easy-to-use search feature helps asynchronous teams maintain a healthy work-life balance. Employees can answer their own questions and find files without disturbing their teammates who are off the clock.

When you do need to talk face-to-face, Slack’s video calling feature is great for quick one-on-ones and meetings.

At Hubstaff, we treat Slack like our office space. The #general channel is a great place to post announcements that the whole team needs to see. We also have channels organized by team for group discussions and specialized information sharing.

Sharing important information in Slack channels is more effective than trying to make announcements in live meetings. Team members can see and respond on their own time.

Of course, we do have meetings sometimes. When we do, we record them and post them in the appropriate Slack channel so that team members can access live meetings asynchronously.

Hubstaff Tasks

Team Sprints

Hubstaff Tasks is our central location for all project-related communication and collaboration.

Every time we work on a task, we leave a comment about what we did so the next person working on it has a detailed work log. If we have questions or requests for teammates, we tag them on the task card and communicate directly within the task. The description allows you to link documents, add attachments and labels, and set due dates. When it’s time to hand something off, we assign it to the right person.

This strategy makes it far easier to collaborate because every task includes information about what has been done, what still needs to happen, and who is responsible.

Even if someone comes in halfway through a project, it’s easy for them to catch up without needing a meeting or real-time conversation.

Our team uses Hubstaff Tasks to ensure we’re all working on the right priorities at the right time.

Each team member can see their task assignments and all the steps they need to finish before the project is complete. We know where we fit in the process and when we need to finish our part in order to stay on track.

As mentioned before, Hubstaff Tasks has an automated Stand-ups feature that keeps everyone connected, no matter when they work. It’s just like the check-ins you’re used to on Agile teams, except we can do it asynchronously.

At the end of our workday, we submit a Stand-up update that lists what we’ve worked on, what we’re doing next, and any roadblocks.

In a lot of ways, Hubstaff Tasks is our secret to successful asynchronous collaboration.

3. Change project expectations and due dates

Successful asynchronous teams are able to reimagine expectations and deadlines.

Most teams have the luxury of working the same hours, so it’s easier for them to stick to fixed deadlines. On an asynchronous team, you’ll either need to:

  • Move deadlines up. If you have client-facing deadlines that cannot be pushed back, consider creating an internal deadline that’s even earlier. This way, you’ll have room for error if schedules don’t align. Worst case, you’ll have deliverables ready ahead of time.
  • Create flexible deadlines. Ask yourself if deadlines need to be set in stone. What would happen if you pushed back a deadline? Would it hurt the project’s chance of success? If the answer is no, maybe experimenting with flexible deadlines would be helpful.
“Something I learned while leading the Hubstaff customer experience team (that at the time spanned 18 time zones from Seattle to Melbourne) is how much you need to operate without the assumption that people are working at the same time.”

Tyler Sellhorn
Head of Customer Experience
Yac

No matter how you choose to enforce deadlines, a great mantra for async teams is “always default to action.”

In other words, async collaboration works best in a proactive environment. Create a culture where employees feel comfortable jumping in — even when nobody else is around to guide them.

The results might vary, but it’s better to have a work in progress than a project that hasn’t been touched at all. Wouldn’t you rather pay employees who have a strong work ethic than ones who are afraid to make mistakes?

We’ve found success with this methodology, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

Async or swim: not a method for everyone

Mastering asynchronous collaboration will take lots of practice. Even then, it might not be the right move for your team.

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions, but transparency, respect, and the right tools are a great place to start.

Have you tried asynchronous work? Tell us all about it in the comments.


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