If you are one of the believers that the future of work is remote, then here’s happy news for you: COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the world’s transition to remote/distributed teams. Remote work is more normal now than ever.
The pandemic has forced many businesses to embrace and adopt remote working policies. Even the more traditional organizations across industries such as financial services, automobiles, real estate have asked their employees to work from home. As a knee-jerk reaction to facilitate this transition, companies, especially the ones belonging to the knowledge economy, have been quick to snap up video conferencing and electronic messaging tools and are contenting themselves that they have gone truly remote.
Unless you have been living under a rock, it is hard for you to have missed how Zoom has been riding this work-from-home wave. The other notable beneficiaries are Slack and MS Teams. More recently, Tencent has released a new video conferencing tool for the international markets. It looks like almost every major enterprise tech company out there wants to capitalize on this remote working frenzy by releasing their own version of Zoom or Slack and organizations are flocking to these tools hoping to segue their business operations remotely.
But what can we learn from the pioneers?
There are quite a few companies that have been operating as fully distributed teams long before this whole coronavirus issue even cropped up. Basecamp, for instance, has remained a virtual company for all of its 21 years. Automattic, WordPress’ parent company, with its 1172 employees scattered across 75 countries and a valuation of US$3 billion, does not have a physical office space. Zapier is yet another fully distributed company with over 300 employees in 17 time zones and 28 countries. Among the many common attributes of the remote working culture of all these companies, the one that particularly stands out is the emphasis on asynchronous communication.
Synchronous communication is when real-time communication happens between two or more individuals. Video and voice calls are obvious examples of this. But workplace chat can fall under this bucket too as they happen in close to real-time. In contrast, asynchronous communication is when senders don’t expect an immediate response and receivers can get to it when they have the time. Collaborating using shared documents such as a Google doc and making it accessible to all so that there is a shared understanding of what is being discussed and decided is an example of asynchronous collaboration.
Neuroscientists believe instant messaging platforms such as Slack, by nature, encourage employees to be constantly distracted.
“With email, you know you probably have time to read through a bunch of messages and have a day to respond, Slack is instant and we get a rewarding hit of dopamine every time we respond to someone or someone reaches out to us to let us know a member of our ‘work tribe’ needs us. It makes us feel valued and informed, but it also makes us fearful every time an alert comes in that we’ll be out of the loop or ill-informed if we don’t check a message, even though very few truly need our instant attention.” — Lucas Miller, Neuroscientist, and Lecturer, Haas School of Business.
Jason Fried of Basecamp calls it the age of the “greed dot” or the “presence prison” and considers this broadcast of an employee’s availability status as simply “too much information”. He calls for a shift in mindset from “I have to call Jeff into a meeting now to get his take on this new feature idea” to “I’ll write up my feature idea for Jeff to check-out whenever he has some free time, and then, maybe, we can have a chat about it live later if needed”.
Basecamp attributes much of its success with distributed teams to asynchronous communication based on long-form writing and encouraging employees to design their own work schedule around when they can put in their best of efforts.
In his recent podcast about ‘The New Future of Work’ with Sam Harris, Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s founder, and CEO, talks about the five levels of distributed teams (five being the highest) and says organizations moving to remote work because of COVID-19 are probably entering level two. With an emphasis on synchronous communication tools such as Zoom and Slack and an expectation of employees to be online from 9 to 5, organizations end up recreating their offices online instead of taking advantage of the new medium, he says. He considers effective written communication and a transparent and public asynchronous collaboration as one of the highest levels of distributed team productivity an organization could achieve.
Zapier has built an internal tool called ‘Async’, which it describes as ‘blog meets Reddit’, for teams to share their work and reference discussions that tend to get lost in Slack group chats. Doist, another fully distributed company, claims that 95% of its team communication is asynchronous as well as transparent and searchable. A pattern one could discern from these examples is the importance given to effective long-form written-communication and collaboration that is asynchronous and accessible to everyone within a team/organization.
Benefits of asynchronous
The most obvious benefit, as discussed, is that it lets employees be less distracted, frees them of their collaborative overload, and helps them engage in large stretches of deep, focused work.
Also, one of the inherent advantages of distributed teams is that it lets organizations tap into some of the best talents from across the globe. Naturally, chat becomes ineffective when you are trying to work with people from different time zones. At their core, group chat apps like Slack are built to support one-line-at-a-time real-time conversations. Asynchronous collaboration provides a level-playing field for employees as it eliminates the informational disadvantage that comes from being in a different time zone.
It also aids in the creation of a more inclusive work environment wherein introverts and less-vocal team members are given a chance to articulate and express their opinions and not be overshadowed by their more expressive team members.
In synchronous meetings, people usually don’t have the time to think through key issues thoroughly before responding. Synchronous meetings are easier to set up and are likewise easier to forget. Meeting minutes are thus an important attribute of the synchronous meeting culture. Asynchronous collaboration, in contrast, encourages people to think through an idea or a problem and provide more thoughtful responses.
More importantly, an asynchronous work environment provides employees with complete control over how they structure their work hours to best suit their lifestyle, responsibilities, and chronotypes. This not only results in a more contented and productive workforce but also marks a complete departure from the industrial revolution era where presence is equated with productivity and hours with output.
That said, video conferencing and messaging tools are definitely an integral part of remote work productivity. Certain use cases mandate the use of synchronous communication tools. It is just that those should not be the go-to tools for collaboration.