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Leaders' Essential Tips for Async Collaboration
Darryn King
Darryn King
Freelance Writer
min read

In 2020, tens of millions of workers were untethered from the office. Far too many of those workers, however, found themselves stuck in virtual replicas of the office, with the same old office schedules and office dynamics.

Clearly, working remotely is not enough. The powerful secret to revolutionizing the way we work lies in working asynchronously.

Working async is working without the "need it now" element. It's working on your own terms — not only where you want, but when you want and how you want. Less task-switching, fewer interruptions, more of the flow and focus that unlocks productivity and drive results. For most of us, it's a whole new way of thinking about work and life.

But transformational change isn't easy — so we asked business leaders across sectors who have successfully transitioned to an async way of working for their best tips.

Ask yourself: Why async?

"This is a team-level contract, so it starts with a conversation. The first thing to figure out is the 'why' — why do we want a more asynchronous work environment? The answer will vary from team to team, but the reasons will give some contours for the rest of the discussion. For example, one team may have several parents of young children who need breaks at specific times of the day, and another team may have people scattered across three time zones. The 'asynchronous' schedule looks different for these two teams, but both can come up with 'core working hours,' when everyone is expected to be reasonably responsive, and can then leave the rest of the time up to everyone’s individual discretion.

As long as people know what to expect of one another, they’ll be able to plan appropriately for the work that needs to be done together and for the work that can be done, apart, whenever." — Ali Rayl, SVP of Product, Slack

Give yourself time to deprogram.

"Moving to async work is incredibly freeing for all involved. However, it often requires a deep dive into our past conditioning around hours-based work and a shift toward outcomes-based work. Start with a week-long, or month-long trial within the team, and agree to come together at the end of the trial period to debrief on what worked, and what didn't, and patiently work together to build trust and create a new operating system for the team." — Sarah Hawley, CEO & Founder, Growmotely

Async-first, not async-only.

"One misconception is that async or async-first work means only communicating async. Some things, like live brainstorming calls, or having teammates connect with each other to meet for the first time, will always be more efficiently done synchronously. At Buffer, we also default to synchronous communication when something is urgent or too complex to communicate async. Async communication can absolutely be a superpower, but in most cases, it doesn't mean eliminating video calls entirely." — Hailley Griffis, Head of Public Relations, Buffer; MakeWorkWork co-host

Get used to working out in the open.

"Async isn’t just a way of communicating — it requires a shift in team culture and mindset. You have to trust your teammates, not micromanage them. You have to let go of the idea that work is measured in hours and instead focus on outcomes.

You also have to embrace transparency and autonomy.

You can’t have an async culture without everyone having access to the information they need. Otherwise, you’ll waste too much time waiting around for someone to answer your questions.

When decision-making happens out in the open, you really feel like you’re trusted and you understand what’s going on at the company." — Chase Warrington, Head of Remote, Doist

Protect deep work by setting boundaries.

"Block time in advance on your calendar for deep, focused work. Once you’ve committed to this time, talk to your manager and team about the importance of keeping this time reserved. Anticipate problems and brainstorm solutions: if an organization-wide meeting is scheduled, will you move this timeblock to a different day or time? Will you decline the meeting? Plan ahead for the inevitable conflicts, and create an open conversation with your team about how you can realistically carve out this focused time." — Katie Scheuer, Head of Learning Experience, Workplaceless

‍"Context switching and interruptions can kill your productivity and overall flow, and it's impossible to create meaningful work in 30-minute chunks broken up between meetings.

To help create time for me and for my team, I utilize a 'No Meetings' day where I am blocked out on my calendar, chat, and apps so that I have complete control over what I'm doing that day. Sometimes that is an important or customer meeting, but most often Wednesday is the day I reserve to do work at work, and to work on important deliverables. The real power comes when you commit to this across a team or entire company because the impact is multiplied." — Dan O'Leary, Director of Partnerships, Box

Participate in meetings asynchronously.

"Especially for meetings where you might have a passive role, ask to decline the synchronous meeting and read the agenda and minutes. Ask the meeting owner: 'Can I participate async? I’d like to share my thoughts in advance of the meeting.' Or 'Do you mind sharing the meeting agenda in advance, so I can confirm my sync participation is needed?' Present this as an opportunity to try out more efficient work practices. — Katie Scheuer, Head of Learning Experience, Workplaceless

Use async to tap into more points of view.

"Asynchronous communication aids in collaboration across cultures, languages, and borders. While the internet has been English language-led to date, there are only more and more workers from non-English speaking countries coming online and working globally. The talent field is opening up.

Communicating asynchronously is not only brilliant for working across multiple time zones – it also allows non-English speakers more space and time to articulate their thoughts and have a seat at the virtual table." — Kate Kendall, Founder, Indie Labs

Writing clearly means thinking clearly.

"Async work requires the use of solid communication tools and practices to ensure everyone knows what others are working on and the progress being made. It can feel strange at first to develop the habit of regular written updates, or updates in other mediums like voice, but in the long term it provides empowerment and a deep level of trust forms within a team." — Sarah Hawley, CEO & Founder, Growmotely

"Written communication is the bread-and-butter of asynchronous teams.

It makes sense. Reading something takes way less time than watching someone present it or listening to its audio equivalent. Written content is also easily searchable, and you can comment on specific parts of the text.

Writing well is not easy, though. Companies trying to work asynchronously should offer writing skills training to all their team members." — Ariel Camus, Founder & CEO, Microverse

Set parameters for communication.

"Just as you can have really long synchronous meetings that go nowhere, you can become overburdened by too much asynchronous communication and information. It's worth working out the parameters:

How much information are we going to share? What kind of conversations are we going to have here? When are we going to archive a conversation? When are we going to move to another asynchronous medium? What's acceptable in text? What's acceptable in audio?" — Pilar Orti, Director, VirtualNotDistant; host, 21st Century Work Life

Utilize a variety of async tools.

"Written communication shouldn’t be used exclusively. When providing feedback, or when presenting something really complex, high-bandwidth and asynchronous communication can be used instead." — Ariel Camus, Founder, Microverse

"At Buffer, we use several tools to document our work or send longer asynchronous thoughts for comments or to make decisions. Using tools like Loom or Cloud App to send videos in addition to text — or instead of text entirely — is one way for async to feel more approachable to folks who might not feel that writing is one of their strengths. Yac and Slack voice notes are also available for voice communication, which has an even lower barrier to entry than video." — Hailley Griffis, Head of Public Relations, Buffer; MakeWorkWork co-host

Working for a heavily sync org? Show them what async can do.

"Are you an employee or contractor at a company where everyone has to be working online at the same time, every conversation has to be a meeting, and you have no time in your day for actual work?

If so, what can you do to enact change in your organization? My advice is to slowly start incorporating async philosophies into your work. You have to demonstrate the value of async through action.

Start writing a quick daily or weekly 'standup' report about what you’re working on, what you’ve finished recently, and anything you’re blocked on. Share this with the whole organization. Encourage your colleagues to do the same, creating a culture of documentation. The goal is for this to eventually replace standup meetings.

Additionally, when people ask for a call to talk through a problem, request that you have the conversation asynchronously and in writing, in a way that allows more people can participate and the information is transparent to everyone.

Then start turning down invitations for calls that are unnecessary. A simple, 'No, I’m working on a project and can provide a written update instead' can send a clear message. Let your manager know that all these calls you’re expected to be on is impeding you from getting your core work done — you know, the stuff you were hired to do to begin with. 

If all that fails, you may realize it’s just not a culture fit and that you need to move on." — Rhiannon Payne, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Remote; author, The Remote Work Era

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