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Four Keys to Building a Culture of Asynchronous Collaboration
Andrew Logemann
Andrew Logemann
Head of Marketing
min read

Too many of us have absorbed an office-centric model of work.

Commuting for an hour just to sit alone in a grey cubicle. Dealing with constant distractions from our coworkers' too-loud conversations and Gary's incessant pen clicking. (Stop it, Gary!) Being judged for leaving before five o'clock.

But companies large and small are embracing an alternative: asynchronous work. Asynchronous work is work that doesn't have to happen at the same time.

Collaborating with people across timezones. Working from anywhere in the world. Ditching your commute. Spending more time with family.

Asynchronous work is not just an online version of office culture. It's something completely different.

Almanac and The Async Review gathered leaders from three all-remote companies to get their best advice about communicating with asynchronous teams. They shared four strategies for making asynchronous communication work with your team — whether you are remote work veterans, or trying out remote work for the first time.

Strategy 1: Build a Culture of Empowerment

We've always known that our most valuable employees are the ones who can think for themselves.

An asynchronous culture helps you cultivate this high-performance trait in every member of your team. As you give them the tools to work independently, you open up time and space for them to make their highest contribution to the company. "Asynchronous communication is how you enable autonomous work," affirmed Tammy Bjelland, Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a remote work training company.

"Autonomous work is what we're striving for. We want employees to have the freedom and flexibility to do their best work when they want to, how they want to."

Autonomous team members with clear goals accomplish more -- and faster -- than their micromanaged peers.

Strategy 2: You Don't Have to Do Away with Meetings... Just the Unimportant Ones  

The best meetings build connections among team members, get everyone aligned on key goals, and make each person on the team feel heard. But we all know that those meetings are really rare.

Working asynchronously changes the way your team communicates. But it doesn't eliminate the need for synchronous communication. "Often people think async means you don't talk to your colleagues, you don't do meetings, you don't really communicate," said Kevin Kirkpatrick, CEO of We Work Remotely, a job board for remote employment.

Work is more collaborative than ever. And collaboration always requires meetings. Working asynchronously simply forces you to be intentional about how many meetings your team has, and how often.  

"We default to asynchronous as much as we possibly can," explained Betsy Bula, an All-Remote Evangelist at Gitlab, a software development company. "But there is that healthy balance between synchronous and asynchronous work that we do try to strike. So we certainly do have meetings, but we try to eliminate the unnecessary ones."

"But there is that healthy balance between synchronous and asynchronous work that we do try to strike. So we certainly do have meetings, but we try to eliminate the unnecessary ones."

Bjelland agreed, adding that effective leaders adjust the balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication to find the mixture "that makes sense for your team in that team's given moment. Needs are going to change as the teams change. And so there's always an element of iterating and improving upon your practices."

Strategy 3: Document Relentlessly

In office-centric culture, it's rare for people to write down their processes and procedures. And even if they do, those documents can quickly become dated and obsolete.

Instead of writing things down, you walk around the office searching for the person who's carrying the institutional knowledge you need in their head. If you don't have an answer, said Bula, "you're relatively used to just tapping someone on the shoulder and asking them a question." But these frequent interruptions undermine the team's productivity. "It's so much more respectful of everyone's time if you're able to first try to self-serve."

Documenting your team's knowledge in a handbook makes this sort of self-reliance possible.

"Everything we do as a company, from our processes to our culture, to how we communicate with one another, is all documented in our company handbook," Bula explained. "It is this living, breathing document that we're able to orient everyone around."

When your team has access to everyone's knowledge and experience, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Gitlab's handbook has become an indispensable resource of more than 2,000 pages. It's full of answers to common questions, descriptions of key processes for the business, and policies for employees.

"We really encourage people to start the practice asking yourself, every time you have a question, 'Could I figure this out through some type of documentation or asking someone asynchronously and not expecting an instant reply?'" Bula said. "And if the answer is no, then that's an example of something that needs to be documented because future new hires are going to have the same question."

Strategy 4: Experiment and Iterate Continuously

Working asynchronously encourages new patterns of working.

It takes practice. And not every idea will work. Be sure to check the results against your criteria for success as your team experiments with new tools and strategies.

At We Work Remotely, Kirkpatrick's team evaluates their experiments in asynchronous work according to a series of questions:

  • Does it increase focus time?
  • Does it provide less distraction?
  • Does it increase alignment across organizations and departments?
  • Does it increase thoughtful communication?
  • And does it provide flexibility?

Establishing criteria for your experiments allows you to improve your processes and strike the right balance for your team and business.

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