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What Is Asynchronous Work? (Async Working Model)

Asynchronous work

Key Takeaways

1. Previously the domain of large multinationals and international organizations with distributed teams spread across countries and timezones, async working is now hitting the mainstream. Asynchronous work does not require all members of a team to be physically present in the same place or online at the same time.

2. COVID-19 pandemic measures shifted many businesses towards remote and distributed working. However, moving a traditional office-based synchronous working model online can simply replace traditional problems (e.g. too many meetings) with equivalent remote problems (e.g. too many Zoom meetings).

3. An asynchronous working model can provide a beneficial paradigm shift for your business while also addressing some of the key problems of remote working (e.g. expectation of instant response). Successful asynchronous working requires the right IT equipment and software as well as management practices which are both well-structured and emotionally intelligent.

4. A hybrid synchronous/asynchronous model might be the right answer for many businesses, with core hours set aside for essential meetings and collaborative engagement, and other work performed asynchronously.    

While asynchronous work generally involves a great deal of remote engagement, it is much more than a simple variant of remote working. With asynchronous working, staff are not required to be present or online at the same time and instant response is not expected by default. More responsibility is devolved to staff, with managers needing to become more agile and emotionally intelligent in their engagement.

Moving to an asynchronous model can entail a significant shift in rules and norms for traditional companies and should not be undertaken without planning and preparation. 

Our article looks at this major employee engagement trend of 2023, and tells you more about the benefits and challenges of asynchronous working, as well as the tech tools you need to make it a success.  

What is the definition of ‘asynchronous work’?

Asynchronous, or ‘async’, work is a term used to describe a working style in which tasks, communication and processes are not time-bound in a linear way. Async work is very much focused on goals rather than activity, and on contribution rather than presence.

Async workers may complete tasks on an individual schedule. Async communication between colleagues and managers is not instant by default. Meanwhile, online platforms enable team members to independently access information resources and upload their own products without mediation or control by managers.

Asynchronous work exists in contrast to the traditional synchronous mode of working where teams and managers will be in the office or online during the same working hours, working to the same schedule and milestones, communicating in real-time and with project stages advancing in a linear way.

An asynchronous style of working can evolve naturally when teams are made up of colleagues operating across different countries and timezones. It has long been familiar to multinationals and international organizations with offices around the world. A hybrid asynchronous model is also possible, combining compulsory core hours for synchronous working activities, with asynchronous working permitted outside these times. This model is particularly useful for businesses that adopt a four day workweek

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, asynchronous working has been increasingly adopted deliberately by a wider spectrum of businesses in order to maximize the value of their increasingly remote and distributed workforces, as well as in growing recognition of the value of uninterrupted and independently-led working. While the pandemic is no longer than main driving force behind hybrid models of working, its effects are felt today in many working models, including for working holidays where asynchronous work may be utilized.

Benefits of asynchronous work

Asynchronous work may carry significant benefits both for employers and employees. In general, the more distributed your global team is, the greater the potential benefits from async working. Benefits include:

  • Reduced reliance on meetings
  • Overuse of meetings is a common fault in synchronous working which creates fatigue and staff disengagement. Whether real-life or online, synchronous meetings will rarely be of value to all attendees, and a significant proportion could be replaced by alternative communications (e.g. pre-recorded weekly manager updates). With async working, more time can be spent productively on focused independent working or conversations directly relevant to tasks.
  • Enabling deep thinking
  • Fewer scheduled meetings and impromptu interruptions along with no expectation of instant response, means that workers have greater opportunity for more focused work. Async workers are better able to set aside uninterrupted time for deeper, more complex and more strategic thinking in their working day, which would be a challenge in a traditional synchronous working model.
  • Greater autonomy and engagement
  • Async workers have the freedom and responsibility to set their own schedule around their objectives, working at times when they’re most productive, communicating as needed, and creating a positive work-life balance. Autonomy, control and meaning are all important for staff engagement, which then, in turn, links to productivity. 
  • Improved compatibility with distributed workforce model
  • With a distributed and at least partly remote workforce (also known as ‘hybrid work‘ or a ‘remote-friendly‘ workplace) now a normal feature of many companies, the mismatch of synchronous working with modern business and social practices is coming into starker relief. Async working is a more natural and effective match for remote teams with members working different hours in different locations.
  • Simply moving the traditional synchronous working model online replicates traditional problems in a virtual environment (e.g. too many meetings = too many Zoom meetings) while creating new ones (e.g. 24/7 responsiveness expected from remote workers).
  • Reduced stress
  • Fewer interruptions during the working day and greater levels of control over their own workload means lower levels of stress and irritation for workers, and potentially better mental health and fewer sick days.
  • Easier onboarding
  • New team members can get up to speed more easily in an async working model. With synchronous working, inducting newcomers involves tasks and meetings in real-time over a period of weeks or months.  The collaborative working platforms, clear information management systems, and explanatory documentation necessitated by asynchronous working means that relevant background context, products and current status data are immediately accessible on Day 1. 

Challenges of asynchronous work

The greatest challenges with asynchronous working may be linked to issues around human psychology or mental health. For successful implementation of async working, emotional intelligence in leaders and managers is just as important as the provision of the right IT kit and software. Challenges include:

  • Blurred work/life boundaries and micro-management
  • The open-ended nature of asynchronous working can blur the lines between work and private life, something which is already an issue of concern in home and/or virtual working. This can be exacerbated if managers don’t fully accept asynchronous working concepts and/or working hours and are making contact when a worker should be offline. Manager distrust can lead to over-monitoring of async employees or other micromanagement practices.
  • Even without manager pressure, many people will find it hard to resist checking messages late at night if this is when colleagues in other timezones log in to start work.
  • Disconnection and misunderstanding
  • Async working carries a risk of workers feeling personally disconnected from their team, their project and their employer. With asynchronous working, workers may not even have the minimal level of colleague interaction that comes from online meetings in real-time remote work. Disengagement from work can lead to poorer mental health, and lower productivity.
  • At the same time, async communications can be more easily misconstrued. This has always been an issue with emails and instant messaging which lack the context contained in tone of voice and body language. With async comms, there isn’t even the opportunity to pick up a phone for immediate clarification or explanation of messages, potentially allowing misunderstanding or resentment to fester for days.
  • There is also the risk that async working leads to proximity bias, where the employer is biased towards employees they are more regularly engaged with.
  • Reduced collaborative creativity
  • Asynchronous working does not automatically provide opportunities for teams to collaborate creatively in their work. Without either scheduled brainstorming meetings, or frequent chats by the coffee machine or water cooler, other means must be found to foster the joint working and co-creation of ideas that these encounters normally facilitate.
  • Pressure of responsibility
  • The reverse side of the coin of greater autonomy is that workers also have greater responsibility for managing their own time and achieving goals. In traditional synchronous working, a manager often sets the schedule, monitors staff hours and guides team progress forwards in real-time. In asynchronous working, some management responsibilities are delegated to individual staff.

What tools and resources are needed to enable asynchronous working?

Business leaders considering a move to an asynchronous mode of working should ensure that their company can provide the right structures and support to make this a success. Remember that asynchronous working is an organizational paradigm shift, rather than a simple on/off switch. You may want to include the following areas when considering your asynchronous business needs:

  • Effective management
  • Async working requires line and project management which is well-structured, clear and emotionally intelligent. The aim should be to maintain workflow and productivity without interference and micromanagement. This includes regular check-ins, constructive work-stream guidance, and good judgment on where and when to create opportunities for social interaction.   
  • Clear objectives and workstreams
  • Good project management is extremely important in asynchronous working. Managers and team members must follow good practice in setting objectives, monitoring and documenting progress, and flagging issues. Employers should provide IT equipment and software appropriate to business needs (e.g. Basecamp, Quip, Asana). 
  • Collaborative working platforms
  • With an adjustment of attitudes, expectations and default settings, Teams, Zoom, Slack etc.. can be used asynchronously. Instead of real-time daily huddles or team meetings to connect and keep everyone on the same page, team members can provide the same daily updates asynchronously. Key information might include latest project progress, current priorities, and flagging areas which require support or ideas from others. 
  • Effective comms
  • Async working doesn’t mean no video calls or meetings, only that they don’t necessarily have to happen in real-time, don’t require instant reaction, and won’t be setting the schedule automatically. Video messages and updates may still play a useful role (e.g. a weekly video senior update to be watched at any time). Email, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Loom and other apps can be used for asynchronous text or video messaging.
  • Accessible information management
  • Fully and clearly documenting project progress and wider corporate issues is extremely important in async working. Businesses also need to have fully functional and easy to access intranets (e.g. via Sharepoint or Yammer), file sharing platforms and databases which require no mediation by third parties for standard daily use.  
  • Social engagement
  • Asynchronous workers will generally still want some level of social interaction with their colleagues. Managers should find creative ways to meet these needs. For example, asynchronous networks across timezones could be split into regional teams for synchronous social engagement purposes, perhaps offering the same online events or competitions in multiple synchronous iterations and then comparing outcomes or choosing overall winners asynchronously. 

Embrace the asynchronous working model

Asynchronous work could be a great opportunity for some companies, potentially opening the door to new levels of staff engagement and productivity. Operating successfully across 180 countries, Horizons already has extensive experience in facilitating all kinds of remote working models, including asynchronous working. Get in touch today to discuss ideas and obtain a tailored quote for your business.

Frequently asked questions

An example might be staff from offices in Tokyo, London, Beijing and Berlin working together on a shared global business strategy Googledoc via comments and tracked amendments without scheduled meetings or instant discussions. It could also be a group of developers working individually on elements of a new software package and uploading outputs independently to a project management platform where a project manager oversees and communicates clear objectives, status and progress updates.  

The fundamental difference is that synchronous work proceeds in a time-bound linear way, with all staff working the same hours and communicating in real-time about their projects and workstreams. Asynchronous work has a less linear flow and does not rely on constant communication.