Why the future of collaboration is asynchronous

Work is changing rapidly—and with more and more remote employees, companies will need to embrace asynchronous collaboration.

Heather Hudson, Writer
7 May 20218 Min Read

Work is changing rapidly—and with more and more remote employees, companies will need to embrace asynchronous collaboration.

It’s been more than a year since employees around the world were “sent home to work.” And while we’re seeing a gradual return to the office, many organizations are reimagining how and where work gets done in 2021 and beyond.

According to a PwC US Remote Work Survey, more than half of executives said average employee productivity has improved since people have been working remotely. And the employees who agreed were more likely to report that their companies have been better at collaborating on new projects and serving customers. 

“We’re seeing lots of organizations realizing that remote work is no longer an emergency situation. It’s something they want to adopt forever, but they know they need to figure out a way to maintain their company culture and put policies in place to make asynchronous work collaborative and sustainable,” said Sunny Zeimer, Chief Operating Officer of Distribute Consulting, a management consulting firm specializing in workplace mobility. 

Zeimer says new clients are consistently surprised by the almost immediate effect of asynchronous remote work. “One of the first things they notice is an increase in overall productivity. We hear that all the time.”

“They also see the quality of collaboration go up and that’s because there’s a natural pause in being asynchronous. Without the pressure to deliver in real-time, people have a little extra time to brainstorm and craft thoughtful responses and ideas."

Here at Front, we’re generally a productive, happy bunch, and that’s largely because we’re collaborative by design. As we move into the future of work, we see an inextricable link between collaboration and an asynchronous approach. 

We need collaboration—no matter where you're working from

At its heart, collaboration is the act of two or more people coming together to share information and ideas. In its most basic form, it’s the concept of “two heads are better than one”. Among the wealth of benefits, you’ll find:

  • More investment and passion from the team. Increasingly, people want to derive meaning, inspiration, and a broader sense of purpose in the work they do. When people work together on a shared goal that they believe matters, they are more satisfied and tuned into its overall success.

  • Employee turnover decreases, requiring less money on hiring and training. With great job satisfaction comes less attrition. It’s worthwhile investing in structures and tools that facilitate the collaboration that engages and retains valuable employees.

  • Inclusivity can improve. Collaborative practices like encouraging people to contribute via chat in a Zoom meeting; instituting a round robin so everyone has a dedicated moment to share; and leaving several minutes of silence at the end of a brainstorm to give people a moment to process all go a long way toward gathering fresh insights and perspectives from all members of the organization.

  • Increased problem solving, learning, and creativity. When we work together, we have the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by one another. A highly collaborative environment can serve as an incubator where great ideas get bounced around and refined.

  • Better ability to attract top talent. A collaborative workplace is increasingly a selling point for high-performing individuals who want to learn from and work with the best and brightest in the business. When you’re known as a company that harnesses the power of things like cross-functional collaboration, you’ll be considered a hotbed for innovation and career growth. 

  • Better buy-in and alignment. When everyone has a hand in coming up with a policy, solution, or system, a smoother uptake is virtually guaranteed. Even when an individual disagrees, they’ll be more likely to accept a decision if they feel their idea has at least been heard.

  • Greater overall efficiency, especially in customer support. A collaborative customer support model ensures everyone is on the same page. They can see the history of every customer communication with your team and all the details of the problem at hand so a smart, swift solution can be created and shared.

Learn more about what good team collaboration looks like, the best productivity tools to complement your collaborative workplace, and the benefits of a shared email box to take your teamwork to the next level. 

When does collaboration go wrong?

Like any workplace practice, collaboration can have a dark side. “Collaboration gone wrong can be rough. People can feel frustrated and stuck and that’s never good,” said Zeimer. Here are some unpleasant side effects that you typically see:

  • Ownership and accountability issues. When constantly working together, individuals may not feel a sense of ownership or accountability over a project since it belongs to the group at large. 

  • High expectations for replies around the clock. No one wants to be the one to let the whole team down – nor do individuals want to appear like they’re not part of the process. This can sometimes slide into constant communication instead of purposeful ways and times to contribute.

  • Lack of inclusivity/toxic work culture. There is the potential for the loudest voice in the virtual room to take over, making it difficult for people who have different communication styles to contribute. Collaborative environments can also breed a toxic culture when a few members of the team bring bad attitudes or bullying ways to the project. 

  • Employee burnout from over communicating/ context switching/ notification bombardment. Collaboration with a large group often includes constant communication in a variety of ways. Some people are more sensitive to this stimulation and find it more exhausting than exhilarating.

  • Too many video calls. For teams working remotely, video calls are a primary method of communication. We’re learning that Zoom burnout is real. 

“It’s important to know that collaboration requires structure. Someone has to own the project, there needs to be consistency and transparency in processes, and frequent but not constant communication is important,” said Zeimer. 

“When it goes wrong, you’ve got to identify the cause and right the ship with explicit policies about how work will be conducted asynchronously.”

Our predictions for collaborative asynchronous work

PwC reports that nearly 70% of U.S. workers surveyed want to continue to work remotely after the pandemic subsides. Many organizations are planning a hybrid office/home model. These trends will give rise to the value of collaborative asynchronous work.

“This is the moment when companies have to take a deep breath and make a decision. I’m seeing companies have a hard time separating from the experience of emergency remote work and what really thoughtful and planned working situations can be. I expect we’ll see a lot of hybrid for awhile,” said Zeimer. Here are some of our predictions for what that will look like:

  • Video will be huge, but there will be fatigue. Although employers will still use video conferencing solutions for a ‘face-to-face’-like meetings, we’ll likely see more creative solutions, such as asynchronous meetings that use a shared document to collaborate on.

  • Chat and other synchronous tools won't work as well. Particularly for employees in different time zones, real-time collaboration tools will be a barrier. Even employees who don’t have that challenge often find it too distracting to be a truly efficient way to collaborate.

  • Email will be a powerful force for business communication, internally and with customers. “Email remains the single most prolific business tool in the enterprise, but no longer the most productive one,” said IDC Research Director Wayne Kurtzman. He recommends collaborative email tools to save time, enable people to work faster, and ensure greater accuracy. 

  • Tools that enable collaborative writing will rise in popularity. We know that the right technology supercharges collaboration. You can keep everyone looped in to contribute what they do best.

  • Asynchronous meetings will be big – and better than ever. Even those weekly team check-ins or daily standup meetings can become asynchronous. Simply schedule a meeting as normal, put together an agenda in a shareable file, and set a deadline for each team member to populate their section. This keeps everyone in the loop and in the flow without pausing to have a meeting every day.

Why asynchronous work will win

Asynchronous work is not an invention of the pandemic-ravaged workplace. For decades, asynchronous collaboration has been built into the fabric of many international companies with employees located all over the world.

In an increasingly borderless global economy, leaders are recognizing the power and possibilities of hiring an employee from absolutely anywhere–and then giving them autonomy over their schedules, the pace of their work, and the way they collaborate with their colleagues. 

“Leaders who move us closer to a written and remote future, who truly understand the value of communication, will invest holistically in tools, staff, ideas, and infrastructure,” writes Juan Pablo Buriticá in Increment

Technology tools have the potential to be the fuel for the future of asynchronous work. Investing in solutions that bring employees together but also give them space to get (and stay) in flow without the distraction of non-stop pings and alerts will allow for richer, more thoughtful contributions. A digital infrastructure that’s designed for the asynchronous employee experience is necessary for creating these conditions.

And don’t forget a charter that describes how, why, when, and where to collaborate with colleagues, ideally using a variety of mechanisms. This will help employees be on the same page about how to efficiently and meaningfully connect with one another. 

Above all, asynchronous work provides flexibility and virtually limitless possibilities for organizations to create cultures and processes tailored precisely for their unique company. 

“We hit the reset button of what the standard of work is. People are seeing the potential for productivity and overall job satisfaction for employees who work asynchronously,” said Zeimer. 

Written by Heather Hudson
Originally Published: 6 May 2021
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