For years, our work lives have been in a state of tumult and flux.
In 2019, 52 percent of U.S. workers were "not engaged" at work, according to Gallup, while an additional 18 percent were "actively disengaged." The same year, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a workplace hazard, defining it as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
In March 2020, a global pandemic cleared out office buildings and business districts. Knowledge workers experienced new kinds of flexibility — and one effect of the crisis was to reveal that the office was not essential to work — but also that high amounts of anxiety, disconnection, and loneliness persisted.
The following year, workers proceeded to resign en masse.
Amid these various crises, the last decade has also seen the rise of a new way of working, and a new way of thinking about work. It is called async (or asynchronous) collaboration.
According to adoptees, it is a solution to some pervasive problems with work, and a competitive advantage for the modern organization in the globally connected workforce. It leverages the powers of modern technology while challenging long-held assumptions about how work must be done, allowing a team to tap into the full potential of deep work and realize new collaborative capabilities. Ultimately, it represents an evolution from 20th-century "office culture" to 21st-century "distributed culture."
The purpose of this guide is to explain the processes of async collaboration along with its underlying principles and place in the ongoing history of knowledge work, for the benefit of any organization looking to adopt or transition to async collaboration.
— The team at Almanac
At the beginning of the 20th century, the office — formerly an appendage of the work done in factories — became central to work.
Much of the goings-on in the office, however, remained rooted in the industrial labor of the previous century. It took the factory production line as its model, with its emphasis on mechanical efficiency. Its organizational structure was authoritarian and strictly hierarchical, taking its cues from the military.
And, as with factories, it was inconceivable that work could be done outside the workplace — the office itself was the site and source of the worker's productivity.
Aspects of office life changed and evolved over time. Air conditioning and fluorescent lighting pushed workers deeper into buildings. Information and intellectual capital supplanted manufacturing as the basis of a new "knowledge economy." Computers replaced typewriters and automated menial tasks. New management strategies came and went, varying in execution from company to company. The open plan office gave way to the cubicle — then made a comeback — while, elsewhere, workspaces offered attractive perks and encouraged "creative collisions" while increasingly resembling college campuses.
Through it all, however, it's possible to discern and identify certain underlying themes that recur throughout the history of the office — what we might call the principles of "office culture": the control of information, compliance with rigid systems, the command of subordinates, and a strictly hierarchical organizational structure.
Senior personnel keep and control knowledge within the company. Communication flows from top to bottom. Assumes that employee behaviors need to be constrained, with undesirable behaviors guarded against.
Employees continuously execute assigned duties in accordance with rigid procedures and systems without necessarily being made aware of the purpose or objectives of their work. Maintaining the status quo is prioritized over genuine collaboration, innovation, and the employee experience. The main criteria for success are the productivity and profitability of the business.
Individual employee autonomy and ownership over projects is minimal. Employees are supervised and directed by leaders, who make all key decisions regarding processes and policies, and determine the overall direction of the org.
Organizational structure is strictly hierarchical. The topmost level of authority lies with the top level of management. Strict and consistent rules and regulations — including reward-punishment systems — are enforced.
The underlying themes of control, compliance, command, and hierarchy persisted even as the Internet Age seemed to irrevocably alter everything else. Email became the primary mode of business communication. An unprecedented volume of information became widely available. Wireless internet, broadband, and smartphones enabled workers to work from anywhere. Superior virtual communication tools and digital file storage enabled cloud-based content collaboration across timezones.
While office culture was unchanged and unchallenged, in some quarters, the new era of unlimited mobility and global connectedness had inspired new ways of thinking about work. It was not just the primacy of the physical office that was being questioned, but the philosophies and methodologies of work associated with it.
A viable alternative to office culture finally began to emerge as a possibility.
As a way of working, distributed (or remote-first) culture has some of the characteristics of a disruptive technology: it has the potential to offer greater accessibility, deliver new kinds of value, and ultimately provoke a paradigm shift.
Contrasting sharply with the underlying themes of office culture, distributed culture is built on transparency of information, clarity of process, the autonomy of employees, and a networked organizational structure.
Under the office-centric model, knowledge and information are tightly guarded and controlled, and available only to a select few.
In distributed culture, the emphasis is instead on transparency — open and honest communication between leaders, managers, and members of the team. All kinds of information — everything from workflow updates to company metrics and, often, remuneration data — is shared openly and widely.
Transparency — it is sometimes called "radical openness" — facilitates a participatory culture, inviting more input from individual contributors. Consensus is deprioritized since the most valuable input might be thoughtful disagreement or constructive criticism.
Transparency of workflow also leads to accountability. Genuine work and progress is recognized and thus incentivized. On the other hand, the superficial outward appearance, or "performance" of work, is not rewarded.
Where office culture relies on compliance with rigid processes and policies, distributed culture promotes clarity on the what, the how, and the why of work.
Firstly, the individual contributor must understand their own role and responsibilities. What is expected of me? What does success look like?
The individual contributor must understand policies and processes. How do I do my job?
Finally, the individual contributor must have clarity on goals and objectives — not just their own, but the company's. What are my objectives, and how do they align with the objectives of the org as a whole?
With this level of clarity and understanding, the distributed team and its individual contributors can apply their time, effort, and resources most effectively.
The command principle, in office culture, refers to the way individual contributors are closely supervised and directed.
Distributed culture emphasizes autonomy, granting contributors the space and freedom to deliver results on their own. They are given more opportunities to make their own decisions and to take action, without constant supervision or micromanagement.
Worker autonomy means that fewer overall labor hours are spent on back-and-forth communication about work, ad hoc requests, and waiting for approval from managers and stakeholders. More time and effort is spent on concrete action.
For example, granting employees unrestricted access to documentation and letting them self-serve information reduces overall time spent on ad hoc requests, allowing managers to focus on other tasks.
This requires managers and leaders who — having spent time creating and ensuring clarity — can relinquish hands-on control. They must set their team up with the tools and context for them to deliver work, rather than being prescriptive of the time and place of the work itself. Instead, the focus must be on objectively evaluating the quality of the work itself.
Autonomy also requires well-coordinated, well-structured processes that provide visibility regarding the work done, work being done, and work to be done.
Where office-centric organizational structure emulates the hierarchy of a factory, organizational structure in distributed culture resembles a network.
Knowledge, authority, and responsibility is shared seamlessly and evenly, empowering the individual contributor and allowing valuable contributions to originate from anywhere. Every output is the optimized result of a greater diversity of inputs.
Along with a shared vision and common purpose, the strength of the network depends on a sense of trust and psychological safety.
For the network-based organization to thrive, all policies and processes must be fundamentally inclusive — to team members in different time zones and locations, a range of brain and personality types, and those with varying working styles and preferences.
A network may even extend beyond the parameters of the organization itself, through cross-company dialogues and external partnerships.
As mentioned, even though the Internet had opened up new possibilities for a new kind of work, the fundamental ways of office culture continued to predominate.
But as the 21st century wore on, systemic issues with work were becoming more apparent. Workers were dissatisfied, disengaged, and burning out.
And then, in March 2020, a global pandemic struck. Office buildings and business districts emptied out. Work carried on, from home.
Even now, office culture persisted. Although workers were no longer co-located in offices, the old routines and dynamics of the office were copied and pasted onto the new work-from-home context. Virtual meetings replaced physical ones and then some. Employers tracked employees' productivity with surveillance software. Burnout became rampant. Widespread employee dissatisfaction was expressed in the Great Resignation.
For many, it was finally time to rethink work, and more fully embrace a new methodology of work suited to distributed culture.
By the early 2010s, long before the pandemic, a handful of companies were already trying out new approaches to work that tapped into the potential of distributed culture.
With their teams widely dispersed across geography and time zones — and with video-conferencing still a relatively unsophisticated technology — they set out to create innovative work systems, along with new organizational behaviors.
They knew how they didn't want to work: the "hyperactive hive mind," as described by author Cal Newport in A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. (Newport's definition: "a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.")
Ultimately, and with some amount of trial and error, the companies developed and refined a set of policies and processes which collectively formed the basis of a new methodology of work: async (asynchronous) collaboration.
In contrast to synchronous, or real-time work, async collaboration minimizes the reliance on meetings and other unstructured communication. Instead, ideas are generated, decisions are made, information is exchanged and analyzed, and problems are solved, with an emphasis on written communication.
It's a way of working that maximizes the individual's potential for focus, flow and deep work, while also priming a team to work together most effectively and tap into the full extent of its combined collaborative energy.
Strictly speaking, asynchronous communication is nothing new: email originated as an asynchronous tool, and can still be used that way.
In this guide, however, we use the term async collaboration to refer to a holistic and comprehensive methodology that applies to every aspect of an organization: every policy and process architected with async in mind.
It is also crucial to note that effective async collaboration — while using async as the default — means understanding the distinct strengths of async and sync, and knowing how to utilize both together. Ideally, each one will catalyze and complement the other. Each org needs to find the right balance of async and sync for their particular needs through a process of experimentation and iteration.
When we use the term async throughout this guide, we mean async-first: async most of the time, real-time some of the time.
In order to understand and transition async collaboration, it's worth first clearing up some common misconceptions surrounding it.
Collaboration is driven by the iterative interplay of different people's ideas. Over the years, many have subscribed to the notion that this kind of collaboration can only be achieved in person, with brainstorms and design sprints.
With the right tools and processes in place, however, productive async collaboration is not only possible but has distinct advantages over the real-time equivalent. For example, async collaboration prioritizes thoughtful reflection and analysis. It also creates more potential for inclusion, and for more input to be sourced from a wider diversity of perspectives.
In some respects, the deliberateness required by async — particularly in its emphasis on careful written communication and documentation — slows work processes down.
However, by mitigating inefficient communication and optimizing collaboration, the rate at which decisions are made and the best work possible is produced can actually accelerate. For example, when a synchronous meeting is not required to drive a project forward — and can instead be moved forward through asynchronous communication — a project can move forward when it is ready, not when everyone's schedules align for a meeting.
While feedback/response time can be slower, the dependence on getting immediate feedback/response, common in a highly-synchronous work environment, negatively impacts efficiency overall.
Async is a powerful tool for teams spread across timezones, but that doesn't mean that less geographically dispersed teams can't also benefit from its processes.
After all, every worker — no matter where — can benefit from greater flexibility and control over their workday, just as every team stands to benefit from better decision-making processes, more inclusive collaboration, and fewer real-time engagements.
With its reduced emphasis on face-to-face interaction, some assume that working async inherently leaves workers feeling less connected to their colleagues.
There is a danger of disconnection on any remote team — if a company does not take an active interest in team bonding and connection. The async-first company that invests in organized team bonding activities and coworking weeks, and constantly strives to create new ways of meaningful interactions between colleagues, can create a truly connected team.
In the office, employees were in plain view.
In remote, async work — with its transparent systems and policy of working out in the open — it's the work that's in plain view. This means that, in fact, great work can be even more easily recognized, which could and should lead to career advancement.
This emphasis on the work itself also mitigates the potential for conscious or unconscious discrimination against workers in the physical workplace.
As a methodology of working that enables autonomy, async collaboration also allows employees with leadership capabilities the space to grow and develop as leaders.
At the time of writing, some leaders and orgs claim the future of work lies in a hybrid model, where workers are split between working remotely and working from the office.
In effect, the hybrid model promotes office culture — and its associated ways of working — with remote team members likely to bear the brunt of difficulties in communication, collaboration, and connection with their office-based counterparts.
The org as a whole will suffer from an inability to coordinate its teams' disparate efforts.
This is because effective distributed culture is about more than when and where work is done. The org must reevaluate how work is done, and adopt a remote-first and async-first mindset across the board.
We unpack all the practical wisdom you need to successfully unlock async collaboration in your team or org, explaining processes, policies, and resources. How can you conduct shorter, more effective meetings, and fewer of them? What does async-first management look like? What about recruiting and onboarding? Navigate on for the answers.