Hybrid work: 7 ways to enable asynchronous collaboration

In the hybrid work era, collaboration doesn't require that we all work in the same place at the same time. Here's how to help teams embrace asynchronous work
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As more organizations begin bringing some employees back into the office and letting others remain remote, the challenges of orchestrating hybrid work are emerging. One key enabler of a productive, engaged, and innovative team in this in-between arrangement is asynchronous working.

“Working asynchronously simply means that we don’t all have to work in the same place at the same time in order to work together,” says Brian Abrahamson, CIO and the associate laboratory director for communications and IT at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab.

One problem: "Many of us brought our old ways of working to Teams and Zoom when the pandemic hit."

Sounds simple – but it’s not necessarily innate. “Many of us brought our old ways of working to Teams and Zoom when the pandemic hit,” notes Abrahamson. At the same, though, many technology organizations have made huge progress in digital work and remote collaboration. The age of the virtual workplace forced people to modify how, where, and even when they work.

“Today, instead of collaborating in real time – walking to the next cubicle to ask a question – remote work has forced us to become more independent and to rely even more on technology as our primary communication,” says Jason James, CIO of EHR software and analytics provider Net Health.

[ Want more advice for your remote work strategy? Read Hybrid work: 3 truths leaders can't ignore. ]

How to enable asynchronous work: 7 key items

Now, IT leaders can take that to the next level as they move toward the post-pandemic phase of work. “The time is perfect to pivot from that and teach an organization how to make big productivity gains and great hybrid experiences through working asynchronously,” Abrahamson says.

Here are seven ways IT leaders and their teams can fully embrace and encourage an asynchronous approach to work.

1. Enlist all users doing hybrid work

“For asynchronous work to truly be successful in an organization, every member of the C-Suite, IT, product, engineering, sales, marketing, and other teams need to be on board,” says Laurent Perrin, co-founder and CTO of customer communication platform Front. “Employees should feel supported and trusted in the way they work, and that’s impossible if half of your team continues to operate by old work patterns.” Modeling asynchronous work is key to successful adoption.

2. Get comfy multi-tasking

Work is becoming even less linear. “With asynchronous work, it becomes much harder to be single-threaded – we can’t focus on one thing at a time,” says James of Net Health. Patience will be paramount. “Because you may be waiting for information from someone else, learn how to move forward with other projects simultaneously,” James advises. “We’ll have to be able to seamlessly jump in and out of projects while remaining focused and efficient.”

3. Focus on outcomes

One of the main differences between asynchronous and synchronous work is that the former tends to center on time- or task-defied work processes. “Asynchronous work requires a grasp of what the outcome – the final product of work – needs to be, as opposed to the amount of time spent in close coordination producing the final product,” says Dee Anthony, director at global technology research and advisory firm ISG.

Consider taking a page out of the agile playbook.

IT leaders need to get better at defining, managing, and measuring outcomes. Anthony suggests taking a page out of the agile playbook: Identify outcomes, estimate the effort required to accomplish them, track work velocity, and perform regular reviews.

You  must also foster a culture of trust. “Having people work across time, even in the same country, means that the old nine-to-five is out the window,” says Iain Fisher, director at ISG. "Managers cannot be there all the time, so a culture change of trust and respect must evolve."

4. Institutionalize flexibility

Network performance monitoring provider AppNeta always had a strong work-from-home policy, but there remained pressure to be in the office at certain times. “Sometimes this even slowed things down, with more time being spent coordinating calendars to ensure all stakeholders could be there rather than executing on a course of action,” says AppNeta CEO Matt Stevens. “The pandemic taught us all that effective leadership does not have to take place in person, and projects don’t always require facetime if an asynchronous plan will ensure smooth execution.”

The company instituted a “10-in-9” plan, giving employees every other Friday off. It’s been not only popular but also a performance booster. “We still expect team members to get a full two weeks’ worth of results completed on time,” Stevens explains, “but how they do that in nine business days is up to them.”

5. Reconsider workflows

Tools that make virtual collaboration easier are only as good as the processes behind them.

Tools like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Docs make virtual collaboration easier, but they are only as good as the processes behind them. “Many of these tools can be used in both synchronous and asynchronous ways,” says Sean Chou, CEO of Catalytic. “But the changing world is trending toward asynchronous work, so your workflows, tools, and management styles need to adapt in favor of more flexible communication styles, schedules, and technology.”

6. Optimize communications

 “Working asynchronously requires very strong written communication skills to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding,” says Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of Totara Learning, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement, and performance management technology. “It also requires strong audio/video capture skills.”

What’s more, different colleagues may communicate in different ways. “There may be times when an email or Slack isn’t the way to go,” says James of Net Health. “To address the challenges of today’s hybrid workplace, a few of the more important things we can do is become better organized and optimize our communications.”

Rather than sending out a steady stream of emails or messages, think fully about everything you need. “Be concise, thorough, and clear – noting what you need and when you need it,” James advises.

7. Identify a single source of truth

 “Asynchronous working means organizations must become much more intentional and thoughtful about cross-team and company-wide communication,” says Sumir Karayi, CEO and founder of endpoint management provider 1E. “[Managers] must also identify a ‘single source of truth’ for key content across all teams, so employees are all on the same page and equipped with proper resources.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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