Over two years after the COVID-19 shutdown sent an unprecedented number of workers home to work remotely, more and more companies have embraced permanent changes to the way they do business. For some organizations, that’s meant opting for a more flexible structure that lets each employee determine their work hours, better known as asynchronous or async work.
While it’s not an option for all firms, the asynchronous model offers advantages to both employers and employees — flexibility and fewer distractions from core tasks among them. But for companies that experimented with the model during the pandemic (either by choice or out of necessity), maintaining a functional, productive work culture while remaining asynchronous may require some additional structure to make it sustainable. Below, experts shared the strategies that work to keep productivity high and employees thriving in an asynchronous workplace.
What Is Asynchronous Work?
In short, asynchronous workplaces generally have no set working hours, and no expectations that employees will be online and responsive at the same time. While asynchronous firms have deadlines like any other, and may set guidelines for general timeframes that employees are expected to respond to colleagues, individual employees are given the freedom to work the hours that best suit them to complete their essential job functions.
Working in an asynchronous model is nothing new: International organizations with operations that span different time zones or countries have historically worked this way by necessity, and other firms, like web-based productivity platform Trello, for example, have made it central to their operations. For many employees, an asynchronous schedule is a huge draw, offering the flexibility to work when it fits their schedule, including their non-work commitments. Other employees value the longer stretches of concentration and deep focus that asynchronous work allows, or find they can work more efficiently knowing that they won’t be interrupted for small talk or pulled into a meeting.
It’s also a boon for employees who want to work for organizations whose normal or regional business hours don’t align with their own — working at their own pace can open up opportunities for travel or relocation. Similarly, doing away with fixed operating hours can let employers recruit from a broader geographic pool of candidates than they could with a standard synchronous schedule.
So what makes asynchronous workplaces successful? Experts said there are four critical best practices.
4 Best Practices for Asynchronous Work
1. Establish priorities.
The company’s mission and priorities need to be clear and accessible to all employees — and so should the tasks each department or role is responsible for and when. This is true of all workplaces, but it takes on a new importance when corporate and managerial online communications won’t be supported by in-person meetings or casual hallway chats. When employees will be working on their own time, it’s essential that everyone is on the same page about what is important or urgent — and what isn’t.
This can mean more extensive documentation or checklists for projects, or establishing a protocol for check-ins and sign-offs to keep projects moving. Tools like Lattice Performance, and specifically its Updates feature, can keep employees informed and aligned about where the company or department is in relation to its goals and what roadblocks might lie ahead, and can empower workers to prioritize the most critical steps.
In addition, experts said it’s even more important to let asynchronous employees know not just what the company and departmental priorities are, but exactly how to gauge how important new information is. “Employees must be able to distinguish between urgent and vital communications,” said Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a psychologist and CEO of EleVive, a life-skills-training coaching practice for teens and their parents. “When utilizing an instant messaging application like Slack, it's tempting to believe that every communication is important, even if it isn't. That is both the benefit and the drawback of instant messaging tools: They may make every message appear important, heightening employee communication anxiety.
“Set some rules for what constitutes an urgent message and how it should be marked in your communication platform,” Lombardo advised.
2. Centralize communication.
Experts agree: Firms looking to permanently shift to an asynchronous model need to invest in an information infrastructure that puts all documents, databases, and other critical work intelligence where it can be accessed by those who need it. “Asynchronous work needs to have open information-sharing in your business,” said Michael K. Newman, MD, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, CA whose office is set up to operate asynchronously. “Every team member should be able to carry out their responsibilities at any time, regardless of whether or not their colleagues are online and available.”
“When team members are working on many projects or tasks at various times, the work environment may rapidly become chaotic,” noted Derek Warburton, a stylist and founder of Mr. Warburton magazine, a digital fashion and celebrity publication. To remain organized — and avoid unnecessary chaos — it’s essential to invest in the right information management tools. Warburton and his team use Trello to bring their styling and editorial projects to life by organizing tasks and projects in progress. Other options can include shared file databases, custom software programs, or even something as basic as a shared file drive. The only requirement is that it house all the relevant files and be accessible by everyone who needs the information.
3. Hold more one-on-ones — but fewer meetings.
For managers at companies moving away from a traditional synchronous work model, knowing colleagues and direct reports aren’t always going to be available for meetings, whether scheduled or impromptu, can feel unsettling. After all, without regular meetings, how will teams get to know each other? How will progress get updated? And how will work get done?
The reaction to this unsettling feeling can be to schedule more meetings. This isn’t confined to asynchronous workplaces: According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, since February 2020, the average user of Microsoft’s Teams messaging software has seen a 252% increase in their weekly meeting time, and the number of weekly meetings has increased by 153%. But experts said not only does that defeat the goals of asynchronous work, it’s not driving results either.
“Before scheduling a meeting, always ask yourself: ‘Is this meeting really necessary? Could we collaborate in a more efficient way?’” advised Jake Marmulstein, CEO of real estate SaaS firm Groundbreaker.
That doesn’t mean no meetings, Marmulstein added. “Of course, there is still a place for purposeful meetings in asynchronous work, including brainstorming sessions and regular one-to-ones with managers,” he said. “For those meetings, organizers should include a clear agenda ahead of time and only invite [the] people who need to be there.”
Replacing most meetings with more frequent one-on-ones, in fact, was recommended by a number of experts as key to keeping workers connected and projects on task. Maintaining a running meeting agenda or a shared checklist of topics to cover can help, and tools like Lattice 1:1s can help keep meetings shorter and more productive by giving both managers and employees access to agendas, highlighting action items, and displaying feedback. The goal should be to make any time that the team is in sync feel productive and invigorating, not draining and wasteful.
4. Institutionalize boundaries.
The flip side of an on-your-own-time schedule? It can be far too easy for on-your-own-time to morph into all-the-time. Without established guidelines and clearly articulated expectations, some employees can find it hard to put a definitive end to their workday. In fact, the Microsoft 2022 Work Trend Index reported that the average Teams user’s workday had ballooned more than 13% — that’s 46 minutes — since March 2020. After-hours and weekend work has grown, too, by 28% and 14% respectively. The bottom line: For an asynchronous workplace to function effectively for the long haul, it has to serve the company and its employees — and if employees are burnt out, they won’t stay.
To prevent overwork and burnout, firms should communicate clear expectations for time at work — and time off work. “Policies should be implemented to prioritize the personal lives of staff,” said Paola Accettola, principal and CEO of Toronto, Canada-based HR services firm True North HR. “For example, companies need to ensure that employees are taking time out for lunch and not working past a certain time or on weekends in order to ensure that they have a healthy work-life balance.” This can go as far as teaching employees how to filter notifications from the company’s messaging and email platforms so that only select or the most urgent messages are visible during off-hours, or even silencing notifications altogether, Lombardo said.
It’s also crucial, Marmulstein said, that managers model the behaviors they want to see in their staff. “Show when you’re available,” he suggested — as well as when you’re not. “By making your availability clear to others, you set expectations and can enjoy a better work-life balance,” noted Marmulstein. “Set your time zone across communication channels like Slack and email [so everyone can see what hours you’ll be working], and block out focus time [on] your calendar. Letting your colleagues know when you usually work is not only important for logistical reasons, but also for communicating personal boundaries."
A clear company mission, strong communication, respect for boundaries, and fewer meetings aren’t traits that are uniquely valuable to asynchronous cultures — they’re fundamental to workplaces of all kinds. But when workers are operating on their own schedules, the stakes are even higher, and the importance of these measures is magnified. With proper supports and purposeful structure in place, asynchronous work can pay major dividends for employers and employees alike. And for more and more employers in today’s work environment, that’s a challenge worth accepting.