Recently I’ve been discussing the concept of “asynchronous work” more with my colleagues.

In general it seems like a great idea that helps people design a more flexible work schedule and make the most of the hybrid work environment that many of us now live in.

However I’m also hearing from many of my peers that they tried to work more “asynchronously”, but that it didn’t really drive the right outcomes with their teams.

I wanted to write a blog post to both explain the concept of “going async” and discuss in some more detail what I think is needed for async work to really work. 🙂

What is asynchronous working?

The concept of asynchronous working was around before the corona virus pandemic, but has gained more traction since more of us started working from home and – as a result – started adjusting their schedules to better fit around their lives.

GitLab – for example – is an organization that has set out to maximize asynchronous working in order to allow employees to work anywhere in the world without having an advantage/disadvantage based on their time zone or working hours.

In a more traditional – synchronous – work environment we usually get stuff done by getting all stakeholders into a meeting or on a call. We discuss a topic, make a decision, and send a follow up memo. This synchronous approach can be productive, particularly if everyone is in the same location.

The asynchronous equivalent to the “meeting” would be a shared document that several people have access to. (for example on SharePoint or GCloud) Instead of meeting at a set time and expressing their thoughts verbally stakeholders edit the document or post comments in a discussion group. A strong process is applied to establish alignment and move forward with a decision.

An asynchronous approach is very inclusive of people in other locations, time zones, or with different working hours, as they can allocate time to provide their reviews when it works best for them. They can also flexibly split their time between different tasks.

What is the challenge with async work?

There are very clear benefits to asynchronous work but most traditional organizations and teams have found it difficult to adopt. The reason I’m making this statement is that in a completely rational environment asynchronous working should have taken the world by storm in the pandemic.

Instead we were all sat on calls for most of our day often wondering why we are there and how this could have totally been an e-mail. (And maybe the call even happened because nobody responded to the initial e-mail because they were in calls all the time.😉)

The first issue that I see with asynchronous working is that it is fundamentally a cultural change. An entire organization needs to actively choose to move to it.

More specifically: If you have calls or meetings during most of your day you will have very little energy or time left by the end of it to review a document, add your comments, and respond to others’ feedback in a timely fashion.

This in turn means that experiments with asynchronous work practices are usually doomed to fail. This is actually very similar to introducing Scrum in an environment that is geared towards a Waterfall delivery model. If we don’t adjust the rituals, processes, and culture around the core delivery model, what we end up with is Water-Scrum-Fall. I guess in the case of asynchronous working this would be “synchronous async”.

In fact this creates a nice parallel to asynchronous calls in coding. If you have an asynchronous call at the end of a long chain of synchronous ones you do not capitalize on the asynchronous call you have just implemented. Instead you have just made your code more complicated.

So is it worth trying?

I certainly think so. Over the last few years we have learned that far more teams than we thought can be productive while remote.

Asynchronous working maintains the benefits of remote working while increasing its efficiency over time.

But just like Scrum needs a Scrum Master, it takes an Async Master in every organization to help implement the cultural change for the change to be successful.