Asynchronous Work: Everything You Should Know

Asynchronous Work: Everything You Should Know

With remote work here to stay, we’re faced with the fact that, while it's great to work from anywhere, flexibility can still be an issue.

No matter where you’re working, you might have to align your schedule with your company’s headquarters in another time zone or continent. You might also be stuck working a nine-to-five schedule that’s difficult to juggle with your personal life.

The increased importance of asynchronous work

Since remote work is far more widespread today, companies and teams should adapt to overcome this challenge. A new type of remote work is emerging that offers workers the flexibility they value while benefiting businesses too—asynchronous work.

While it may be an intimidating change, once you have nailed the right amount of communication and committed to detailed documentation, asynchronous work can be incredibly rewarding. People can enjoy benefits including flexibility, better communication, and documentation.

In addition, working asynchronously can prime you for “deep work,” a term that Cal Newport coined to describe the ability to work intensely without distraction. With asynchronous work, people are empowered to be more independent and effective.

What is asynchronous work?

Asynchronous work is a methodology that treats work like a relay race instead of a sprint. This allows team members to pick up tasks from others without waiting for meetings or direct messages.

Two important parts, core to the methodology:

  • Documentation: Store information so anyone can find project details, past activities or important updates without relying on being online at the same time.
  • Task management: Document and track who is working on what with descriptions, assignees, start- and due dates, labels and more.

Instead of synchronous work, where a team needs to be online during the same hours, people now have the actual freedom to decide when and how to work.

One team member might start their day at 6 am while another might not start until noon. When there are people across different locations across a country or continent, working as their individual schedules permit provides a flexible solution.

For distributed teams especially it’s important to rely on asynchronous communication methods. As they often work across different locations and time zones, it’s important to retrieve, track and follow up on work without having to constantly check in with others.

People can respond when it’s convenient and during their own set work times, but everything can easily be found back and next steps can be taken without having to wait on someone else. Since people may work different hours than their team members, communication often isn't expected to be immediate.

With asynchronous work, you should never be held up when a coworker is offline. You and your team can stay on top of work and move away from the hyper-responsiveness that often comes with real-time communication.

Benefits of asynchronous work

We’ve talked about what asynchronous work is and how it, well, works. As a new approach, asynchronous work provides quite a few benefits that more traditional, synchronous workplaces cannot.

Longer periods of focus and concentration

Asynchronous work enables you to focus on the task at hand with minimal interruptions. Normally, questions or messages can pull your attention away from what you’re working on and shatter your concentration.

With asynchronous work, there’s little to no pressure for workers to respond immediately. You can focus on writing, coding, or problem solving and get work done.

More flexibility

Asynchronous work adds more flexibility for you. Because you don’t need to be online at the same time as management or coworkers you can work when it’s best for you. This will help reduce stress, since work can be aligned to your life, not the other way around.

Additionally, since asynchronous work’s emphasis is on results, not the amount of time worked, you have greater independence to complete tasks and projects. You shouldn’t have to sit around when your work is done for the day.

Better communication and documentation

Since your team may not be online at the same time or have the same context as you, communication and documentation needs to be more thorough and intentional. Asynchronous work, by necessity, improves the quality of communication and documentation. With communication that’s detailed, your coworkers can understand decisions, requests, and projects.

Because it’s intertwined with communication as a foundational element of successful asynchronous work, documentation also becomes more effective with this approach to work. When your documentation is thorough and communication is effective, workers can get answers to their questions independently, without needing someone to provide them with a long explanation. This prevents important information from being siloed and increases transparency.

Disadvantages of asynchronous work

While asynchronous work offers a flexible, empowering, results-oriented approach, it has some drawbacks. The good news is that, if these drawbacks are given serious consideration and thoughtfully addressed, your team or company can easily avoid or resolve them.

It can be a hard change to navigate

With any change comes risk and the time-consuming realities of implementation. Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have given asynchronous work a boost, most workplaces still rely heavily on synchronous communication and work approaches.

Change can be stressful and complex, especially with larger teams or companies. Although it may be intimidating, remaining intentional and decisive about implementing asynchronous work will ensure that it’s a smooth transition.

The right amount of communication can be hard to find

Communication may be an issue if asynchronous work isn’t intentional and deliberate. Too much communication may keep your team in the loop but it can also lead to burnout, and information exhaustion. While messages, emails, and task boards help to make sure that nothing gets missed, they also make it hard to organize and use information effectively when overdone.

On the other hand, too little communication can leave frustrated coworkers tearing out their hair in different time zones. Details can fall through the cracks and escape notice if communication is lackluster. Asynchronous work requires an intentional and thoughtful approach to communication. Ask yourself: Who actually needs to see new information? Who is directly impacted?

Documentation that needs constant maintenance

It’s hard to keep workers on the same page without thorough and up-to-date documentation. This is especially true if they take advantage of the flexibility that asynchronous work offers and work in different towns, time zones, or continents.

Building reliable, accurate information repositories can preemptively answer questions and provide guidance for workers, no matter where they are or what time it is.  

With all things, these drawbacks can be intense or mild, depending on how you approach them. It’s important to remember: asynchronous work relies on structure, thorough documentation and high-quality communication to succeed.

What does it take to make asynchronous work successful?

The short answer is good communication! Because work schedules don't have to overlap, it’s important to make sure nothing gets missed. Just like how asynchronous work doesn’t need team members to work the same hours, asynchronous communication doesn’t need a real-time response.

Asynchronous communication methods provide the documentation that is needed to be successful. These methods include:

  • Task management: Manage ongoing activities or projects in a documented way by creating, editing and updating your work through tasks.
  • Note taking: Write down important information about meetings, discussions or workflows so everyone can get an update without requiring a meeting.
  • File management systems: Store files, graphics and longer pieces of information in dedicated folders that are accessible to everyone in the team.

An asynchronous work methodology is easier to reference while giving people more time to process information because they don’t require an immediate response.

When it’s really needed, synchronous communication can be a helpful tool too. This type of communication, which relies on real-time responses, is helpful when used for complex discussions, personal development, brainstorming sessions, or when things become too time-consuming to resolve through asynchronous communication.

For example, meetings can be exhaustive and unproductive, but when they’re limited to situations when they’re really needed for collaborative, fast decision-making, they’re valuable tools in any workplace.

Effective and organized documentation is another pillar of successful asynchronous work. Since team members might log on late at night or from the other side of the world, it’s important to find and access the information you need, when you need it. Waiting for someone else to be online will slow you down by forcing you to wait for their availability.

Good documentation also reduces how often you need to communicate with your team members about the small stuff. If your documentation is organized, you can navigate to shared notes or files and find the project or workflow details you’re looking for. Inboxes will stay uncluttered and your team can streamline their work by referencing and accessing important information at any time.

Maximize the amount of deep work you can do with asynchronous work

Deep work is when you perform professional activities at the height of your mental capabilities. It relies on focus, on keeping your attention fully concentrated on the task at hand. With deep work, people are intentional and deliberate.

Cal Newport coined the term in his 2016 book Deep Work: Focused Rules for a Distracted World. He says, “​​Deep work is my term for the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It describes, in other words, when you’re really locked into doing something hard with your mind.”

Instead of investing a long period of somewhat-focused work, you deliberately incorporate limited spurts of intense focus. Newport says that, “instead of focusing too much on what’s bad about distractions, it’s important to step back and remember what’s so valuable about its opposite. Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits.”

Working asynchronously supports deep work because it helps to free you from distractions. You can focus more on the task in front of you—bringing the power of your concentration to the table. Information is organized and structured, which means that you will spend less time sweating the small stuff, like locating files, or referencing notes buried in your inbox folders. This will empower you to focus on the work that really matters.

In addition, because asynchronous work enables you to focus on productivity, rather than just clocking in and being online, you’re rewarded by doing deep work since it helps you get things done.

What tools do you need for asynchronous work?

Asynchronous teams should use tools that offer well documented communication which can easily be organized and accessed. Some tools that help with asynchronous work are Rock, Notion, Coda and Google Drive.

Rock

Rock is asynchronous by default and synchronous when really needed. While asynchronous work should be the foundation of team communication, it should not be forgotten that synchronous communication can still add value. Rock's multimodal nature lets you pick and choose how to communicate depending on urgency and priority.

Asynchronous features such as task boards, topics, notes, and comments help you organize your day-to-day work. Meanwhile, real time communication through features like messaging and video conferencing come in handy for discussing complex topics or brainstorming.

Notion

As a project management and productivity tool, Notion provides a single interface for users instead of requiring that they cobble together various tools. No matter what type of work you do, you can configure Notion to fit your needs. It’s highly customizable and therefore flexible to whatever organizational approach you take.

You can collaborate with other users in Notion and have all of the visibility you need into projects, documentation, and communication.

Coda

Coda is an all-in-one tool that combines text and tables. This allows teams a high-degree of versatility, since they can customize each doc to fit their needs. Coda helps to streamline internal workflows while keeping information accessible so teams can work together, wherever they are based.

As a platform that’s flexible and customizable, Coda can help your team work together asynchronously, no matter what they need.

Google Drive

Providing cloud-based storage, Google Drive is nearly ubiquitous in today’s workplaces, schools, and organizations. Google Drive allows people to store a wide variety of file formats where they can be easily saved and accessed.

Because it’s a cloud solution and asynchronous in nature, Google Drive makes collaboration easy. Team members can share files with each other, make edits, and provide feedback in Google Drive.

Because Google Drive is so easy to navigate and comprehensive, it’s a valuable tool for asynchronous work. You can ask a coworker in another country to provide feedback on a draft, share slides with another team, and access any file that you’ve been given access to.

Build a base of shared knowledge for your team

Rock is a central hub that provides a structure for stored team knowledge. Task boards are a place where you can see the status of a project, what everyone is working on, and how progress is going.

Task boards let users comment and ask questions. This creates an asynchronous workflow by default, where people can catch up by looking at tasks instead of distracting video calls. The transparency of task boards helps teams declutter inboxes and prioritizing work.

In addition to task boards, teams can create notes or add files for better documentation without leaving Rock. It is also possible to connect cloud storage providers like Google Drive, Dropbox, Figma, or Smartsheet to keep important information at hand.

Look forward and work asynchronously

With asynchronous work, you can stay on top of your tasks, maintain your work/life balance, and strengthen team knowledge with better documentation. Rock is a tool that can help you reach these goals by being:

  • Multimodal: With tasks, notes, messages, files, and meetings in one place. You can get all of the project management or work functionality your team needs without ever leaving Rock.
  • Asynchronous: Rock has fewer elements like online status and read receipts so you can work more asynchronously and focus on your tasks and projects. With asynchronous communication, you can respond to non-urgent tasks when you have the bandwidth. You can also focus on deep work without calls and meetings interrupting.

Use fewer tools, platforms, and apps during your workday with Rock. By having tasks, notes, and topics alongside messaging and meetings in one place, you'll need fewer tools. You can also work in a more structured way and document important information.

Asynchronous work provides a better, more flexible way for teams and companies to approach remote work. Rock employs asynchronous work by default while making synchronous ways of communicating accessible for when really needed. This way teams can truly embrace the future of work.