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Designing an async-first workflow

Optimize your production process with async collaboration.

By Darryn King

May 3, 2022

Different teams have different methods for transforming input (time, energy, resources) into different kinds of output. But for async collaboration to work, your production process must be designed with a few key themes in mind.

Transparency

A company culture of working out in the open is critical for the remote-first, async-first org. It requires using tools and developing systems that make project progress — and often the work itself — plainly accessible and visible to the rest of the team. Communication about work similarly happens out in the open.

Improving the overall observability of actions and outcomes allows contributors to be aware of what is happening with the larger team, managers to tell what kind of progress their direct reports are making, and leaders to get an overview of organizational goings-on as a whole. It enables alignment across the whole team.

Working transparently removes the need for intrusive check-ins. It builds personal accountability for the work being done. It breaks silos, helping team members feel connected to others across the organization. It also prevents communication breakdowns that harm productivity.

Recognition

It is important to acknowledge incremental progress and milestones and celebrate work achievements — even more so with a distributed team, whose members do not enjoy the kind of positive reinforcement that naturally occurs in an office environment.

Intentional, spontaneous recognition might live on a dedicated chat channel or be incorporated as a regular component of your Friday all-hands. The ability to give kudos may even be a feature in your project management tool. The important part is that it lets employees feel seen and appreciated.

Recognition rituals boost morale and incentivize more good work. It’s also a way for different teams to gain insights into each other’s activities, thereby enhancing overall feelings of belonging.

"Thinking asynchronously will shape the way you communicate. Prioritizing clear writing and consistently structured updates will make async communication more efficient."

— Cate Huston, Duck Duck Go

Documentation

In many office-centric organizations, much of the knowledge about the way work happens resides in people’s heads. The risk of that way of working is that important information is misunderstood or forgotten about.

The solution is placing documentation at the center of your work: using a reliable documentation tool to log every decision, every action, every solution, and every outcome and making that information accessible to the team.

Think of your org’s documentation system as a shareable repository of collective knowledge that also serves as a QA reference manual and training guide. Many async-first companies refer to their documentation system as their SSOT, or single source of truth.

Having a robust documentation system is a way of keeping information at hand when it is needed, instead of having it strewn informally across inboxes and chat channels. It facilitates work while reducing the need for communication about work.

"If you can move the organization in the direction of reading and writing knowledge rather than asking and listening, then you can reduce meetings and work asynchronously. This is extremely important to make a work from anywhere model work."

— Raj Choudhury, Lumry Family Associate Professor, Harvard Business School

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