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Is Remote Work Necessarily Asynchronous?

25 May 2020

A lot of people tend to confuse people working remotely and people working asynchronously. While it’s often the case that people not co-located in a single office will prefer asynchronous communication, that’s not a given. I’ve seen people all working in an open space still favouring Slack & quiet hours over shoulder tapping, and teams working at home reaching for their phone every time something needs to be discussed.

This is especially visible with companies forced into remote work during the COVID crisis, as a lot of them simply converted their physical meetings to conference calls. This will usually spell disaster, as they will lose a lot of productivity, leading to more meetings, more frustration, and a general feeling that remote doesn’t work for them.

To better define organisations, I feel like it’s useful to split a team’s approach into two dimensions: policy with regard to remote and if the team works mostly synchronously or asynchronously.

Remote Work

I try to avoid saying things like “truly remote” or “real remote”, and instead order the remote adoption of organisations on a scale that goes like this:

Scale of remote friendliness from co-located to fully distributed
  1. Co-located team: There is an office and all employees are required to work there.
  2. Team allowing remote work: There is an office and all employees usually work there. However they can also work from home sometimes.
  3. Remote-friendly team: There is an office, but not everyone need to work there. Some people are working partially or entirely remotely.
  4. Mostly distributed team: There is an office, but only a small percentage of the company works there.
  5. Fully distributed team: There is no physical office and people do not work in the same location, even if they can sometimes gather in the same place for particular events.

You can also add the fact that some company have multiple office. Each office can have a different approach to remote, but usually people can move between offices.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous

Let’s define quickly what the two approaches are. Of course, it’s not one or the other, but a scale.

  • A synchronous team will use meetings and brainstorms to move projects forward. The team will favour personal interactions directly either in person, over the phone or via video conference. The organisation is fine with paying the overheads in time spent & lost of focus because of the increased productivity of collaborative synchronous work.

  • An asynchronous team will prefer emails, chat and documentation over meetings and calls. The team usually values long period of uninterrupted time, and deems this more productive than the alternative. They are willing to invest into communication to make up for the reduced amount of direct discussions.

A team is co-located or fully remote doesn’t mean it will be working in a way or another. This is why some companies can be fully remote but require their employee to be within a certain time zone, or at least be fully available in the usual working hours of a time zone.

On the other hand, co-located companies can prefer individual offices, or quiet hours in open spaces. They can also track and reduce the number of meetings to a minimum in order to maximise time focused on tasks.

The decision could also depend on the person and role. Managers tend to be more synchronous and engineers asynchronous, with a bit of both when the two groups interact. In this situation it’s usually important to keep in mind the manager vs maker schedule issues.

Conclusion

Each approach can and has worked depending on the type and scale of the company. For instance a brand new startup could benefit from their founders brainstorming synchronously in an office for a few months to kickstart their project. On the other hand, a larger company can leverage remote work to hire in other cities and reach new talents. Finally a company with complex software engineering work can benefit from a mostly asynchronous culture in order to maximise focus and leave developers in a flow state.

To add my two cents, I don’t think a company that is co-located and synchronous is the way to go anymore. Everyone should allow some remote work at the very least, and prefer asynchronous communication when possible to avoid having too many meetings. Founders should take this into consideration when starting their projects, and existing companies should evolve their process - even after the COVID crisis.

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