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We are not ready for the asynchronous future

Working from home updates

I have a confession. No matter where I happen to be, I like to fit my work around a 9.30am to 6.30pm-ish structure. Horribly old fashioned in these times, I know.

After our great remote working experiment during the pandemic, however, many workers do not want to return to such rigidity.

The jargon-y word for the flexibility to work on our own time is “asynchronous work”. There has been much talk about the concept, some of it overly complex, but it boils down to doing your work “when” you want.

Asynchronous working allows employees to carry out their work without having to be available at specific times, most obviously during the old nine-to-five day.

“Synchronous” work is when people collaborate with each other at the same time, such as in meetings. But the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Some synchronous work will always be necessary. For example, following a day in the office working with colleagues on a project, you can then work at home at times that best suit you.

There is nothing new about asynchronous working. Teams, particularly in global organisations that operate across time zones, have worked asynchronously for years — a group in one part of the world winds down for the day, while another picks up the mantle.

However, we are swiftly moving into territory where these staggered working practices apply at an individual level. This is where things could get tricky because organisations have to consider many dynamics: the size of a company, the roles within it and what digital tools they need to provide. Most companies will need to undergo significant cultural change if they want to make the most of asynchronicity.

Firstly, it requires trust. We need to ditch the idea that “being unavailable is tantamount to the person not working,” says Allan Christensen, chief operating officer at tech company Doist, which has a fully remote team.

Unsurprisingly, such change needs to come from the top, and Christensen advises that any strategy which involves new tools and working practices be introduced slowly. 

Software company GitLab also operates a fully remote team. Its head of remote Darren Murph says asynchronous work is not easy to achieve without a structured “road map” and quarterly changes so that “teams can gradually acclimate to new tools and messaging and how to best utilise them”.

Many businesses will already have some of the tech in place and engage in some asynchronous working, but allowing people the autonomy to work in a new way is very different. 

The upsides of asynchronous work are that it gives employees more freedom and can form part of an attractive flexible working offer.

It also allows people to tackle deep tasks without interruptions and, as Christensen points out by emailing his responses to my questions, more time to reflect on things before providing an answer. But, he adds, it can also slow things down at first and any problems can take longer to surface.

Asynchronous work allows people to tackle deep tasks without interruptions

Compromises will need to be made when teams arrange meetings, or days in the office. Friction may also arise in organisations where workers are unable to work from home. 

It is also important to recognise that breaking daily routines might not be productive for everyone, says Murph. There are always going to be people like me, who prefer to continue to work around a “traditional” structure. 

So if employers are serious about providing a flexible work offer that allows for some asynchronous work, it is going to take time, effort and, in some cases, a total overhaul.

“Organisations are underestimating the tsunami change in the nature of work,” says Tsedal Neeley, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Some will have to upskill their entire workforce, she adds. But it appears companies are unprepared, as many of those who expect to move to a more flexible model have yet to implement more detailed plans.

Over the coming months we will see whether those who want total freedom are prepared to leave old-school businesses for a more asynchronous employer. Traditionalists such as me might once more find ourselves alone in the morning team meeting.


Pilita Clark is away

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