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Asynchronous. What an ugly word. A long, terrible monstrosity with four straight consonants in the middle. I hate it. Even so, I've probably said it every single work day for the past six months.
Why? Well, there is no better word that adequately captures the concept. And the concept is fundamental to how we have to work for the rest of this year and next and a decade after that.
The future of work is asynchronous. And if you can't think of a better word for it, it will stay that way.
What is asynchronous work?
We all know that the dictionary definition of a word does not always match its usage in the world.
In the case of asynchronicity, Webster will tell you that it simply means "not at the same time". And that's how I've always used it.
For 15 years I worked asynchronously in product teams to describe a way of working that minimizes blockers and bottlenecks. It's a term that comes from programming. Instead of having operations fired one at a time, they are fired simultaneously. In other words, instead of following a request-response pattern (synchronous), all requests are executed simultaneously and the responses are returned as soon as they are ready (asynchronous).
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Not a programmer? Imagine you just ordered a nine dollar coffee. With the synchronous delivery method, a single barista would prepare the espresso, then froth the milk, and then call your bill. The asynchronous version includes three baristas, each performing their tasks independently.
Yet the word asynchronous has taken on new meaning amid a pandemic and remote working revolution. It has evolved beyond "not at the same time" and means something that is more like "not together".
It's easy to see why. We have all been hit by what has been referred to as the global health crisis, and that meant a complete change in the way we work. We went from an office that was surrounded by our colleagues to a house that was surrounded by family, pets, or no one at all. Of course, we continued to communicate and collaborate, but technology is now filtering all of our interactions. There is no getting around the fact that things are different. We're just not together.
This has shaped our working life since March. This new reality lends itself to the new meaning of asynchronous. The work may happen at the same time, but not together, and people call it asynchronous work.
Imagine two people independently developing ideas for the same project. They may work in their own home at the same time, but they don't communicate with each other or work directly with each other. Most of us would say we work asynchronously without a second thought. The same goes for these three baristas who work independently but at the same time.
Internally, I have called this the decoupling of work. (It's not deadlocked yet, but I'm pushing for it.) We're physically separate, but no less dependent on one another.
Unless everyone agrees with my decoupling idea – or we come up with a new word to describe this concept – it is time to embrace this new definition of asynchronous.
Here's how we can thrive in this new reality.
The two keys to asynchronous success
There are two key elements required for the new asynchronous work … well, to actually work.
The first key is transparency. Yes, asynchronous work is done independently, but it cannot be done clandestinely.
The magic of async is the ability to produce or consume information in your own environment at your own time. However, this only works if the data you need can be accessed when and where you need it.
When and where are clearly defined in a meeting. Not so with asynchronous work.
Far too often, we neglect the impact of the way we work on the ability of others to do the way they want. Our work style can lead to the creation of new silos. Because of this, we spend X time every week just looking for information.
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You know the old adage: "My freedoms end where yours begin." We need to bring this mindset into the work environment. My work flexibility ends where yours begins. It is important that you consider how your work will affect others and incorporate transparency into your approach where it is needed.
how does it look in action?
Let's take the example of a Zoom meeting – the currently synchronous solution. Despite the fact that we've all suffered from zoom fatigue for the past few months, we're moving on because we want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to share and receive important information. When a project has five or ten stakeholders, resorting to Slack chats or emails can lead to endless notifications and things being overlooked. So video calling has become the norm.
However, an added focus on transparency can get you out of the drowsiness: it can keep you from talking about other participants, keep telling people they're muted, and noticing how disheveled you look on videos.
We use video calling because it is the closest thing to face-to-face information sharing. However, transparent technology platforms such as Google Docs and Miro offer us intuitive platforms for communication and collaboration without eye strain.
Define a time window in which users can develop ideas separately – asynchronously – on a shared Miro board. Use a Google Doc to get feedback on a letter. Share a project update in Asana or Looker. You can share your ideas, comment on others' ideas, ask questions, and even make decisions together without starting your webcam.
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There is no shortage of ways to replace video conferencing with asynchronous activity. However, they all depend on the complete transparency of the information. This means equal access to information and tools for everyone involved, open feedback cycles and collective decision-making mechanisms.
The second key piece is alignment. Asynchronous work can lead to the people on your team falling apart and losing the common thread. Alignment ensures that all employees achieve their goals despite different routines and environments, without the need for half a dozen daily meetings.
Proper team alignment means that everyone in your company knows your business goals and their role in achieving them. Aligned teams are more efficient, work faster, work more collaboratively, and are generally happier.
Aligning buildings has never been easier: managers must constantly strive to point the rowers in the same direction. Remote working has only made this more difficult by removing many of the mechanisms we once used to ensure alignment. Things like personal meetings, desk check-in, and spontaneous conversations.
Most executives relied on synchronous work to align their teams. Now they are trying to adapt.
But that's ok. The alignment can be done asynchronously.
First, set clear, memorable goals and involve your team in the process. Clarity of goal is critical to working asynchronously because everyone should be working towards the same endpoint. It is important that goal setting be done in multiple horizons because you need people at all stages of the business and at all times of your week, quarter, or year to know what they are heading for. Involving your team is short for buy-in, and buy-in means alignment.
Next, establish clear, functional workflows. Everyone should know or be able to see how the work comes from idea to completion. In particular, they should know their role in this workflow and that of everyone else. Well-defined workflows improve alignment by removing doubts and avoidable questions from the equation. Workflows are like guard rails. They still leave you plenty of room to adjust and be agile, but they keep you from going off course.
Follow the formula for successful asynchronous work
Transparency and alignment can be viewed independently of one another, but they affect one another. The more transparent your organization is, the easier it is to align your teams. The more aligned you are, the easier it is for your teams to drive transparency.
A transparent, focused organization is one that will thrive regardless of how it works. Remember:
Transparency + alignment = asynchronous success
… We definitely need a better word for asynchronous. Let me know on Twitter @marcboscher if you have any ideas about what to replace it with, or if you like my "decoupled" work proposal!