Business buzzword: asynchronous working

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The Covid-19 pandemic has spawned its own vocabulary over the past year and a half. Terms such as ‘lockdown’, ‘R rate’ and ‘social distancing’ have become part of our day-to-day discourse.

As a new world of work takes shape in the aftermath of the crisis, many of us are also adjusting to ‘hybrid work’ – where staff split their time between the office, home and local flexspaces.

But what about ‘asynchronous working’?

Your time, not real time

‘Asynchronous’ literally means ‘not occurring at the same time’, and it describes a situation where you might be working quite different hours from your colleagues.

It means that exchanges of information often don’t happen in real time. Instead, they happen on your own time – via email, VoiceNote or instant messaging software.

Asynchronous working isn’t new. If you work in an industry where teammates are based overseas, it’s likely you’ve been doing it for years – and the increased flexibility that many employers were forced to offer during lockdowns led to more asynchronous activity than ever.

Now, as the pandemic appears to be coming under control, asynchronous working seems set to claim a permanent place in many working lives.

Advantages of asynchronous working

An obvious advantage of the asynchronous approach is that it empowers employees to work in a way that’s effective for them. How colleagues communicate with one another is key.

Synchronous communication requires engagement in the present, whether it takes place around a table in a meeting room or via Zoom call. Often, people expect – or feel it’s incumbent upon them – to give immediate answers to any questions they’re asked.

Asynchronous communication frees the individual to approach a task, project or problem when they’re in the right mindset for tackling it. It also allows them the time to offer considered responses to anything teammates might ask. A short delay provides space for the sort of strategic thinking that it’s impossible to put behind a quick-fire comeback.

Asynchronous working inevitably means fewer meetings, and thus less meeting fatigue. It also enables employees to embark on longer periods of focused work, where they can concentrate without fear of interruption.

Another advantage of asynchronous work is that it usually means there’s a communications ‘trail’. When people use platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack or Google docs for collaboration, there’s often a written record of who’s said what, so it’s unlikely that key points will be forgotten and difficult for information to slip through the cracks.

Downsides and disadvantages

One obvious disadvantage of asynchronous communication is that it means less immediate feedback from colleagues. This lack of engagement can be discouraging or demotivating, when – in a synchronous situation – a teammate’s smile or “Well done” might have made all the difference.

The reduction in opportunities for ‘watercooler moments’ is also worth noting: opportunities for spontaneous collaboration are fewer and further between when teammates aren’t available to chat during the same time periods.

Organisations where asynchronous communication is the norm also tend to place a lot of responsibility on employees to stay up to date on projects and policy. When the answer to what should be on your to-do list for the day lies in a Google doc instead of with a person you can talk to, the onus is on you to check and respond to it.

Employers need to trust their people in order for asynchronous working to be effective. Where they don’t, leaders end up micromanaging their teams and, ironically, the freedom to work asynchronously might mean employees are subject to more clock-watching than during a traditional 9-to-5 day.

Communicating primarily via email and messenger services can also cause issues. Reading the tone of messages isn’t always easy, and it’s possible for them to be misconstrued in ways that are less likely when people meet face to face.

Moreover, some asynchronous workers complain about the sheer volume of messages they receive – not to mention the pressure to stay on top of them. In a similar way to working from home, asynchronous hours can blur the line between your life and your job. Basing yourself at a local Regus, rather than in your own home, is one way to help to mitigate this.

Making asynchronous work well

In the new world of hybrid work, it seems likely that many firms will adopt a mixed approach to asynchronous working. Some employees might work asynchronously for some of the time, perhaps with core hours set for most colleagues, or defined as mandatory for everyone on particular days.

Even in a largely synchronous role, it’s possible to claim some of the advantages of asynchronous communication. Demarcating particular windows for checking and responding to your emails, for instance, can open up lengthier periods for completing complex tasks.

Likewise, employing software such as Trello or Asana can allow for remote and asynchronous project management, reducing the need for catch up meetings, whether these are virtual or face to face.

Blake Thorne, of management software firm I Done This, says that we can all make small changes that will improve our productivity. “We have many asynchronous tools at our fingertips,” he comments. “But we’ve been using them like synchronous tools.” Picking up your emails within seconds, or answering every Teams Chat message immediately is not what these tools were designed for, Thorne argues.

“The modern workplace is filled with communication and chat tools like Slack, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and more,” Thorne concludes. “When used properly, they allow us to spend less time talking and more time working.”

Hybrid working can lead to greater productivity and a better work-life balance. Use our location finder to search for a Regus centre near you